What’s the Big Deal with Asbestos in Schreiber?

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What’s the Big Deal with Asbestos in Schreiber?

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“ROOM CLOSED: Please Move To…” catches passing eyes with its bold font and repetitive message plastered across multiple signs on the ground floor of Schreiber High School.  The classroom door haughtily adorned with these warnings is Room 10, the site where health classes have been taking place for years. This classroom has been closed to students, teachers, and custodians since the end of January.  The reason? Risk of asbestos exposure.

However, it wasn’t until March 19 that the administration released an official statement regarding the issue.

“All tests conducted thus far have returned negative results for asbestos and all classrooms have been cleared for use,” said Principal Dr. Ira Pernick in the letter.

Any concerns brought up by this communication are hoped to be allayed by upcoming work.

Yet, the question plaguing many students was and still remains: what exactly is asbestos?  In order to fully comprehend this predicament that faces our school, it is first important to have an accurate, basic understanding of what asbestos is.  According to The Mesothelioma Center, asbestos is a soft, threadlike mineral fiber that is naturally occurring and has been mined and used for centuries due to its general resistance to heat, electricity, and chemical corrosion.  

In the U.S., builders commonly used asbestos when constructing large structures throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  However, while asbestos is highly profitable for businesses, it is also the disturbing culprit behind a plethora of serious health problems.

Asbestos is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  According to the National Cancer Institute, if products containing asbestos are disturbed, tiny fibers of the material are released into the air and, when breathed in, may be captured in the lungs and remain there for an extended period of time.  These fibers can then accumulate, leading to inflammation and scarring, which can affect one’s breathing and lead to a variety of health hazards, ranging from cancers of the lung, larynx, and ovaries, to mesothelioma (a cancer of the thin membrane that surrounds internal organs such as the lungs) and asbestosis.  

Easily one of the most frightening aspects of asbestos exposure, however, is the fact that the time between one’s initial exposure and one’s onset of such illnesses usually takes many years, with many of those individuals who had been exposed to asbestos two or three decades ago just now becoming ill.  

Due to the pressure from business interests and industry executives who hurriedly covered up health dangers for years, virtually every further effort besides very basic, rushed laws to regulate asbestos in the U.S. has been unable to come to fruition.  Thus, the U.S. remains one of the only developed nations in the world that has yet to ban asbestos. With a significant portion of older buildings throughout the country–including our own Schreiber High School–having been constructed before these modern regulations came into effect, many of these structures still contain asbestos in high concentrations and pose a threat to those living and working in them.  

In Schreiber, areas within the building that are known to contain asbestos are checked every six months, or twice a year, as legally required of public school districts by the 1986 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA).  Schreiber also keeps a record of its asbestos management plan, which is publicly available in the main office, and categorizes countless rooms across the school by threat level, as required by the same law.

Apart from these routine checks, professional intervention takes place when a teacher or custodial staff member reports a concern regarding a specific area of the building.  In response, the district’s environmental consultant, JC Broderick & Associates, Inc., and most recent contractor, Branch Services, are contacted that same day to test the air and assess the situation, according to the letter from Principal Dr. Pernick.  Though this process may seem to be a fairly simple one to grasp, the reality is much more complicated.

In the case of Room 10, around mid-December, a teacher reported white debris reflective of asbestos found in the classroom and requested to be moved to a different classroom.  According to an article from The Island Now, the administration denied this initial request, despite the district’s long-kept log listing the room’s pipe insulation, mud joint-packing, chalkboard mastic, ceiling plaster, and fire door insulation as all containing asbestos.  The pipe insulation was determined as being “Category 1” in an inspection completed last August, meaning that the damaged or “significantly damaged” thermal insulation must be repaired, removed, and maintained in an undamaged and intact condition, according to AHERA regulations.  

Moreover, all of the aforementioned building materials that are located in this classroom–with the sole exception of the chalkboard mastic–are indicated as containing friable (or easily crushed or crumbled by hand) asbestos in the district’s public log.  

A small-scale abatement happened in January, after which teachers and students were forced to move back into the room, only to find more white particulate soon following.  The room has remained closed since then with a long series of abatements taking place, and more major work done over the break in February.

Assistant Principal Mr. David Miller gave the administration’s perspective of this controversial issue, and discussed how he and his colleagues did not wish to make this issue a secret, and instead hoped to work together with the entire community to find a viable solution.  

“We are trying to be as transparent as humanly possible,” said Mr. Miller regarding communications with the teachers.  

Meanwhile, the student body has been voicing much discomfort and disappointment from what they feel is a lack of transparency between the administration and both teachers and students for the past several months.  According to a survey conducted by The Schreiber Times, 73 percent of students surveyed believe that the administration has not been effectively helping the student body understand the situation.  

“The administration didn’t tell the student body anything about the asbestos until months later.  This made it seem like they were hiding something from us and made everyone even more scared,” said a student who requested to remain anonymous.  

For almost three months, students who took a class in Room 10 were ordered to move classrooms everyday with no explanation as to why such a move was necessary.  Instead, the extent of every student’s knowledge was limited to the signs taped onto the ominously-shut doors, all of which remain in place today, until the letter was sent in mid-March.  

“As a student, it’s hard to trust an administration that tells me that students are the number one priority, while they do not inform students regarding the dangers of potentially asbestos-filled classrooms,” said junior Pierce Slutzky, one of many students in a health class who were forced out of their original classroom.  “How can I trust the administration if they can’t tell us, the students, the truth of what is actually going on at our school?”

According to the letter from Dr. Pernick, “One classroom is remaining temporarily closed while the district awaits the New York State Department of Labor’s review of testing results and provides any additional recommendations that might be warranted.”

However, according to Director of Facilities and Operations Mr. James Ristano, the room remains closed due to a lack of agreement between two parties in the district.  

“Room 10 is still closed because there’s a lot of discrepancy between the administration and the teachers,” said Mr. Ristano.   “We are just also waiting to air on the safe side. We’re looking at abating the whole space, and this way, there’s no question about that.  We’re still working on that.”

While this is a reasonable explanation, it is not the same as that provided by Dr. Pernick in the letter.  

There is also confusion surrounding how and where work is to be done.  In the public logbook where all asbestos inspections are kept, besides the materials listed in Room 10 as Category 1, there are a multitude of other places throughout the school that were also assigned this classification.  When asked whether work had been planned on these areas, including but not limited to pipe insulation in gym storage rooms, girl’s bathrooms, custodians’ break rooms, and in stairwells, no member of administration or Mr. Ristano were familiar with these findings and were not able to provide an answer.  JC Broderick also did not respond to the same question in time for publication.

“Shouldn’t they know these things? At least administrators should know to tell the staff. It can be the cause of sickness later on so people should be aware,” said junior Samantha Goldman.  

When asked to comment on these areas where no work has been planned, Dr. Pernick explained that, though these areas hadn’t been brought to his attention before, it would be his thinking that the areas that should be prioritized for abatement are classrooms, where students spend most of their time.

Moreover, while the district has been contracted with JC Broderick for over a decade, Branch’s contract is obtained through a bidding system, though it should be noted that they have won this bidding for many years, according to Mr. Ristano.  He also commented on how the district hires the subcontractors, as well as that the entire system is “a three-way thing” in that JC Broderick monitors the job and the workers from Branch.

“Sometimes, when there’s a larger project, even though there’s a contractor, we do get other contractors to bid on our job to try to get a better price.  We’ll be doing that for this project,” said Mr. Ristano in regards to the predicted abatement project for Room 10 that will hopefully take place during April break.

Online, on the website glassdoor.com, on which current and former employees review their workplaces, several former contractors levied claims against JC Broderick that the company tolerates low effort and low quality and that operations at the firm were constantly disorganized.

No experience required to get hired,” said one past employee.  “Low standards for quality of work.”

In addition, the work completed by Branch, the company that actually does the work, was allegedly determined as being far from ideal by the Department of Labor (DOL).  Mr. Ristano was questioned about how he would respond to comments made by a DOL inspector who called the containment work “sloppy.”

“That was their comment, but again, I do not have that officially,” said Mr. Ristano.  

Furthermore, when asked if the district should consider changing the company from Branch to a different one as a follow-up question regarding the DOL’s comments, the administration referenced the bidding system.  The issue to accomplishing this is that the only way to change the company is to re-bid for a new one due to the need for a contract, but there is allegedly no time to do so if it is a situation where professional intervention is needed immediately.  

“At this point, the quickest way is to use Branch, but those comments that you’re talking about that I don’t have in writing are on our mind,” said Mr. Ristano.  

This bidding system may not be ideal in its ability to find an appropriate contractor, but it ensures that the district gets the work done on time and at the cheapest price possible.

The issue regarding asbestos in the building is by no means a new problem.   According to an article from The Schreiber Times from the October 5, 1989 issue of the paper, asbestos removal was first deemed necessary in this district in 1979.  In that particular year, the largest abatement project took place over the summer, with approximately 18,000 square feet of ceiling tiles made of asbestos removed from the science wing and certain areas of the guidance suite, and the project ultimately amounted to a hefty $850,000.  This offers us just a glimpse into how expensive abatement projects can be, particularly when they are completed in a reactive fashion, rather than in a proactive one.

“I would love to get rid of it all.  If somebody were to say to me, ‘Here’s a blank check, get rid of it,’ it would be my dream.  But we have to manage it,” said Mr. Ristano in regards to the financial restraints of a possible abatement project for the entire building.

“It has and will exist there long after all of us have probably left the district,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Heebink in the aforementioned 1989 article in regards to asbestos in the Schreiber building.

He wasn’t wrong.  According to a report that was hung on Schreiber’s main doors, as of February 2019, the rooms that are officially recognized as being areas with asbestos are Rooms 2, 3, 4, 8, 11, 104, 114, and 117.  Room 10 is not listed in this record as it has technically been tested and determined to be below the legal limit of airborne asbestos, despite the district log revealing proof of a concerning presence of asbestos in many of its structures.  

Despite the fact that there definitely has not been seamless communication between all parties regarding this problem, it is important to acknowledge that several top school administrators and officials were open to meeting with The Schreiber Times staff to discuss the issue at hand, with Mr. Miller even going through the record book to show how the pages can be interpreted.  

Dr. Pernick has also made attempts to explain the issue to those affected on a larger scale with his statement made in mid-March, which summarizes the issue and quickly goes over how the administration aims to address the problem going forward.  Although not all details were made clear, this statement is a step in the right direction regarding communication between the school and members of the community.

“Nobody functions well, not you, not me, if you’re nervous about what’s happening around you,” said Dr. Pernick.   “So we want to get to a place where we have a solution.”

The building continues to age with every passing day, and much of it is already in disarray, as evidenced by the frequent steam leaks and plumbing issues.  While abatement projects of different scopes and sizes have continually been taking place during summers and longer breaks, at this point, the possibility of a larger scale project can be explored.

At the time of publication, there was a Board of Education meeting scheduled for April 16, where the 2019-2020 Budget Asbestos Management was to be discussed.  The meeting was also prepared as a spot for community questions to be asked and responded to by the Board.

During this meeting, the board will be voting on and are expected to pass a $40,000 sum to pay for the work and inspections that have already been done in Schreiber.  Additionally, the meeting will dedicate time towards dealing with other abatement projects throughout the district as a whole.  

The abatement work done over the break is limited to Rooms 8, 10, and 11 not including any other areas in which asbestos has been found and deemed to be a Category 1 specimen.  

As of now, the district does intend on having some sort of abatement project completed in Room 10 over the April break.  There is a notice of asbestos statement on our building’s very front doors right now, with dates of abatement listed as April 23 to June 1, 2019, but all work is intended to be done by the end of spring break with the rooms affected ready to use again by the time students return.

The contractor is now listed as PAL Environmental Safety Corporation, having won the bidding process over longtime contractor Branch Services. This new company will have the opportunity to try and bring an end to a persistent problem plaguing the Port Washington School District.

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