Aspen School Must Remove Vermiculite from Walls

Thanks to recent changes in federal asbestos abatement regulations, the Aspen (Colorado) School District must spend nearly a million dollars to remove asbestos-laden vermiculite from the walls of a school that is being readied for demolition.

According to an article in the Aspen Times, the necessary asbestos abatement project at the old Aspen Middle School carries a price tag of $927,298, prompting the board to put some other expenditures on hold because of the heavy cost of ridding the building of asbestos before it’s torn down.

Thirty years ago when the middle school was constructed, vermiculite was pressed into the walls to act as a fire retardant. “This natural substance, which has been shown to sometimes contain traces of cancer-causing asbestos, now is on the list of substances that are considered hazardous to human health and must be removed,” the article points out. The removal of the vermiculite must be done by specially trained and equipped workers, it adds.

Superintendent Diana Sirko said last year that the district was caught unaware by a recent change in federal asbestos abatement regulations, which formerly did not mention vermiculite. The choices were either to leave the old school in place or spend the money to remove the vermiculite before demolition. The school board chose the latter.

Officials for the school board hope the demolition will begin early this summer, after students finish the school year, in order to avoid potential health hazards associated with asbestos. The new middle school the students now attend sits just beside the old one. Playground facilities will be placed where the old school now stands.

New York Company Faces Asbestos Fines

A contractor located in Hillsboro, NY (near Albany) is facing a stiff fine stemming from allegations that they violated the federal Clean Air Act by not abiding by local rules concerning the removal of asbestos.

According to an article in the Albany Democrat Herald, Zilco Environmental LLC of Hillsboro has been penalized $36,562 by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) stemming from an asbestos abatement project at Waverly Manor Retirement Center, 2853 Old Salem Road, Albany.

DEQ records indicate that a $15,000 penalty was incurred because the company “openly accumulated asbestos-containing waste material (sheet vinyl flooring) during the project”, which began in October 2006 and ended four months later. The DEQ alleges that Zilco “did not properly package and label the materials in leak-tight containers” and “allowed asbestos-containing waste material to accumulate in the basement kitchen of the facility.”

In addition, Zilco also “allowed four piles of asbestos-contaminated plastic that had been used to create a containment enclosure during its abatement project, as well as an asbestos-contaminated negative air machine pre-filter, to remain openly accumulated in the upstairs kitchen and basement of the facility.”

Other fines levied by the DEQ include $1,100 penalty for failing to provide a complete description of the amount of asbestos to be removed for the project. (The company reported it was abating 980 square feet of materials when the actual amount was 1,433 square feet.)

A $19,412 penalty was assessed because the company started the project without submitting a complete asbestos abatement notification form, instead submitting “false, inaccurate, and incomplete information,” according to the DEQ.

Zilco also listed the retirement center as a “residential property” and paid a $35 notification fee when a $375 fee for a commercial project was actually required.

An additional $1,050 penalty was levied because the company failed to submit required air sampling results from testing at the project site within 30 days of completing the project.

Truck Carrying Asbestos Overturns

A large tractor-trailer believed to be filled with asbestos-containing materials dumped its haul on the Clearview Expressway in Queens (NY) on Sunday afternoon.

According to police and eye witness reports, the New York Times reports that the truck struck a median divider and turned over on the Clearview Expressway near the Long Island Expressway on January 13 at about 3 pm.

The clean-up effort took several hours to complete, the article reports, and traffic on both the Clearview and Long Island Expressways was jammed into the mid-evening hours. Police say they were assisted by the rain and thankful that the snow which was to arrive never materialized, which would have made clean-up very difficult.

The driver of the truck, Artur Gaska, age 39, originally fled on foot after the accident. Police say that Gaska later returned and was arrested on the spot, charged with leaving the scene of an accident.

In addition, police believe that Gaska fled because the asbestos materials may have been on their way to an illegal dumping ground. In New York and in most states, dumps must be licensed to accept asbestos-containing waste. A further investigation is under way to determine whether Gaska and the company for which he works were indeed intending to illegally dispose of the toxic materials.

Training Drill Put Firefighters at Risk

A training exercise designed to teach firefighters how to stay safe during a fire emergency may have put them at risk for long-term health problems, says an article in the Everett, Washington Herald.

According to the article, a group of Everett firefighters were exposed to “unknown levels of asbestos” in July, while chopping holes in city-owned houses known to contain the toxic mineral.

The local Department of Labor and Industries says they don’t believe this is the first time this has happened. A state consultant concluded that “all (Everett) fire department personnel at sometime during their career” likely have been exposed to asbestos during similar training because the department doesn’t have a system to check for the hazardous material and notify employees, according to the report from Enrique Gastelum, a hygiene consultation supervisor with Labor and Industries.

Gastelum says he is concerned enough about the exposure to recommend that the affected firefighters receive regular check-ups and lung x-rays to monitor their health. It usually takes between 20 and 50 years for asbestos-related diseases to appear.

In the meantime, the city has stopped what they refer to as “destructive training”, which involves cutting holes in roofs or punching through ceilings and drywall. These techniques are used to ventilate smoke and flammable gases from burning buildings, and to search for fire victims, explains the article.

“We don’t want this to happen again,” said Everett spokeswoman Kate Reardon. “We’re still trying to determine how this came to be. We still haven’t reached a conclusion.”

In the meantime, firefighters are concerned. “We all thought we were safe, and we weren’t,” said Robert Downey, president of the firefighters’ union. “We weren’t wearing our breathing apparatus or anything and we were creating dust clouds. People are worried they brought it home to their families. It turns out we’ve been doing this all along.”

Michelin Tires Loses Asbestos Ruling Appeal

Earlier this week, a French appeals court upheld a November 2006 ruling which stated that French tire maker, Michelin Company, negligently exposed workers to hazardous levels of asbestos during the 1960s and 1970s.

According to an article in Forbes, the November 16, 2006 decision, originally made by the Tribunal des affaires de Sécurité Sociale (TASS) in Clermont-Ferrand, concerned four former Michelin employees, three of whom had already died of mesothelioma, asbestos-caused cancer. The current appeals court decision applies to the three deceased employees; a decision in the case of the fourth man has not yet been reached.

During the original trial, attorneys for Michelin claimed that the asbestos exposure occurred during a time period when most individuals, including company executives, were not aware of the hazards of working with asbestos. The jury, instead, found that executives were most likely attuned to the dangers of working with the toxic mineral but did nothing to protect their employees.

The Forbes article notes that, together, the men used asbestos to insulate 1,400 meters (about 4,600 feet) of pipes every month until 1973, when asbestos bans were suggested. No protective gear was worn nor was any offered to the men while they worked with the hazardous material on a daily basis.

Asbestos Whistleblower Says He Got Demoted

A steamfitter who has worked for the New York City Department of Education for more than 22 years says he was demoted for questioning the presence of asbestos in several city schools.

According to an article on Newsinferno.com, John Kielbasa, a veteran 22-year school district employee dubbed “the Serpico of Schools” by his co-workers, “has been vigilant about reporting loose friable asbestos in a variety of New York City Schools over the last 15 years.” As a reward, he was demoted to janitor and now spends his days sweeping floors, said his attorney in a recent press release.

Kielbasa and his lawyer maintain that he is being punished for bringing the problem to light. “How can they label me a troublemaker if I’m bringing something important to people’s awareness?” Kielbasa asked.

Pete Gleason, Kielbasa’s attorney, contends that Mr. Eric Wienbaum, who was “recently and quietly transferred for undisclosed reasons,” was the instigator of the harassment Kielbasa has suffered for more than six years.

During this time period, Kielbasa was frustrated by the lack of response he received when he followed procedure and reported his asbestos findings to his supervisor. So, he decided to collect loose, friable asbestos from the city schools to which he was assigned and he sent them to the EMSL lab, one of the city’s top asbestos-testing facilities. All of the samples were confirmed positive for loose friable asbestos. Rather than address the problem, the DOE chose to discipline Kielbasa, says Gleason.

According to the article, Gleason sent a complete synopsis of the long-ignored asbestos condition in NY City schools to New York City Comptroller, William Thompson; New York City Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum; New York City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn; Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer; and New York State Senator, Martin Connor. Only Comptroller Thompson responded. The situation is now the subject of a US Department of Labor investigation.

Asbestos Claimants Appeal Dana Corp Chapter 11 Plan

A group known as the Ad Hoc Committee of Asbestos Claimants has filed an appeal on behalf of “tens of thousands” of individuals who are opposed to the confirmation of auto parts supplier Dana Corporation’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization plan.

According to an article in the Toledo Blade, the committee believes that Toledo-based Dana Corp. has not set aside enough money to settle all the asbestos-related personal injury claims that have been filed against them.

Dana says it has $240 million in cash and other assets earmarked to cover future asbestos and environmental contamination liabilities. The company believes that amount to be sufficient, based on the number of active cases pending against them and the number of dismissed cases.

David Lilly, a spokesman for Dana, said the appeal “was not unexpected” and notes that the appeal will not affect Dana’s plans to emerge from Chapter 11 protection by the end of January.

As the company made its way through the bankruptcy proceedings, it reached settlements with many of the asbestos claimants. For example, the company agreed to pay a total of $2 million to a group of about 7,500 who claim they were injured by asbestos in Dana products. Dana’s plan allows other asbestos claimants to retain their right to sue Dana once the company emerges from bankruptcy, the article explains.

Dana Corporation manufactures driveshafts, axles, and other parts, many of which contained asbestos prior to the warnings issued in the late 1970s as to the dangers of the toxic mineral.

Nearly two years ago, the company filed bankruptcy, faced with a downturn in the vehicle manufacturing industry and an onslaught of asbestos-related lawsuits.

Carpenter Says He was Fired after Questioning Asbestos Exposure

A carpenter for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut alleges that he was unjustly fired after questioning whether or not he was exposed to asbestos while removing floor tiles by hand.

According to an article in The Day, the carpenter, LeRoy Falconi Jr., removed the tiles and then became concerned about asbestos contamination. After Falconi brought the potential exposure issue to the attention of academy maintenance personnel, the academy hired an air quality consultant who tested the area and found that the tiles did not contain asbestos but the underlying mastic or glue did. A licensed asbestos contractor was hired to clean the area and dispose of the material, according to the article.

After doing the work, Falconi asked academy officials for asbestos documentation for the two rooms in which he worked. He was given a 14-year-old asbestos survey and a pink slip, alleging he was not “fit for duty” due to health reasons unrelated to asbestos.

His removal was unfair, Falconi claims, and his lawyer, Donald L. Williams of Groton, said he is “evaluating all potential claims that could be made against the academy on Falconi’s behalf, including violation of Falconi’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, federal whistle blowing guidelines, negligence on the asbestos issue, improper medical diagnosis and subsequent wrongful termination.”

School officials claim that that Falconi’s termination had nothing to do with his concern about being exposed to asbestos.

“We’re always very happy if our employees tell us about anything that can help us improve our safety programs,” said Capt. Jay Phillips, the academy’s chief facilities engineer.

“Since the academy is a very old facility, we do have asbestos tiles and mastic, which is the glue, in many locations,” he said. “Almost everywhere, if a tile is a 9 by 9 size, it contains asbestos.”

Phillips said the academy would “never knowingly assign anyone to work in a hazardous environment,” but did confirm that Falconi and another employee performed the work in question.
“There was little or no dust associated with the work. There was certainly no grinding or work that would create dust or make any of what we later found to be asbestos-containing mastic friable,” Phillips said.

Fate of WR Grace Lies with Bankruptcy Judge

The fate of Columbia, Md.-based W.R. Grace and Company, the corporation whose asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine has already killed hundreds in Libby, Montana and throughout the country, now lies with a U.S. bankruptcy judge in a Delaware courtroom.

According to an article in Forbes, the trial will begin on January 14 and the decision made by the judge will reflect the dollar amount that will be “the core of Grace’s Chapter 11 exit plan.”

The size of that number will determine who maintains control of the company, explains the article. “If the answer from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith Fitzgerald is $700 million or a little more, Grace and its shareholders are safe and on their way out of bankruptcy, with enough value to cover the asbestos damage bill and have something left over for shareholders,” explains the article.

However, if asbestos liabilities are estimated to be $2 to $3 billion or more, Grace will probably become the property of the thousands who have filed asbestos claims against the company and stockholders will be left holding the bag.

Experts believe the true number in regards to asbestos liabilities is about $3.7 billion. “If the asbestos experts are even close to right, then the equity in this company is severely at risk, or it will simply be wiped out,” said Roger Frankel, a lawyer for asbestos creditors.

Investors, however, believe that many of the claims are “phony” and are hoping that these false claims are soon exposed.

Grace is one of dozens of major corporations that were forced to file bankruptcy due to an abundance of asbestos claims. Most have already exited bankruptcy but Grace is the only company to insist on estimation proceedings that resemble a mass tort trial.

“Grace is the last circumstance in which a bankruptcy court has the ability to say which claims are good and which claims are bad,” said asbestos attorney David Bernick.

Asbestos Fines Levied at Military Base

The Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) has cited two construction companies with 12 safety violations regarding asbestos exposure at a military housing construction site at the federal White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, reports an article in the Occupational Health and Safety newsletter.

According to the article, Balfour Beatty Construction LLC, a general construction contractor based in the U.K., and C.F. Jordan LP, a general and utility construction contractor based in El Paso, Texas, are charged with allowing workers to allegedly remove underground concrete pipe containing asbestos from a military housing site “without using appropriate protective clothing or a protective enclosure to contain the airborne asbestos.”

“The inspection revealed that the two companies failed to take appropriate action to protect their employees,” said Rich Tapio, OSHA’s area director in Lubbock, Texas. “Employers must remain committed to keeping the workplace safe and healthful at all times.”

At this time, notes the article, Balfour Construction is facing $179,000 in fines while Jordan may be fined approximately $145,000. Balfour has been charged with “failing to ensure that C.F. Jordan, the subcontractor, was in compliance with OSHA’s asbestos standards; to conduct an assessment of asbestos operations; and to have a competent person oversee work involving asbestos. The serious violations include failing to label asbestos-containing materials and to store excavated asbestos in closed, covered containers.”

Jordan has been charged with failure to provide protective clothing to its employees as well as “failing to establish a restricted area where asbestos operations would be conducted; failing to conduct air monitoring for asbestos; allowing prohibited work practices; failing to train employees handling asbestos; and failing to provide a competent person to properly supervise the work area.”