Morrison-Clark, a flooring company in South Barre, Vermont, is back in the spotlight again for its improper 2008 removal of asbestos-containing flooring prior to installing a new floor at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier.
The remodeling project was shut down and the school closed when an engineer with the Vermont Department of Health saw workers using the mechanical chippers to remove old floor tiles, in violation of Clean Air Act rules.
Demolition practices regarding asbestos-containing materials are regulated under NESHAP (National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants). This regulation classifies many resilient flooring materials made during most of the last century as Category I materials, and stipulates very specific methods for their removal.
Asbestos in domestic materials manufacture was limited in 1989, by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to one percent or less by weight (or volume), but flooring materials made up to 1970 can still contain considerable amounts of asbestos and fall under Category I stipulations.
A recent ruling by the EPA notes that Morrison-Clark failed to: provide advance written notice (typically 10 working days); wet the removed tiles to prevent asbestos fibers entering the air; handle and dispose of the asbestos-containing waste in the specified manner. These violations could result in fines of up to $32,500 per day.
Asbestos is implicated in a number of diseases, including asbestosis, lung and digestive system cancers, and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is generally acquired only after long exposure, but cancers can result from a single exposure. In the case of mesothelioma, that single exposure can lead to a malignant tumor of the mesothelial lining (of the lungs, heart or abdomen) which, after three to five decades, finally invades so much vital tissue that the only prognosis is death within about a year. In about 10 percent of cases, earlier detection and aggressive treatments involving surgery and chemotherapy can lead to a life expectancy of up to five years.
The flooring company already faces a civil suit, filed by the Montpelier School District, which attempts to recoup costs incurred as a result of the company's reportedly improper procedures. The school district charges that it paid out an additional $50,300 to two asbestos remediation firms as a result of Morrison-Clark's work, and an estimated $38,000 in additional miscellaneous costs. These costs have not been explicated, but the fact that the flooring episode delayed school opening (from August 28 to Sept. 2) could account for some of the $38,000. Civil charges against the flooring firm include neglect, breach of contract and fraud. That suit is still pending.
Morrison Clark's lawyer, David Bond, says the company has consistently contested the allegations by both the school district and the Vermont Department of Health, and has requested a hearing. The company insists that its workers followed state regulations - including the use of the mechanical chipper, wetting asbestos and disposing of it appropriately - and that no asbestos contamination was ever discovered as a result of its activities. In addition, Bond asserts that the materials involved in the removal and cleanup aren't regulated by the EPA because of their low asbestos content.
The company has reportedly refused an offer by the EPA to settle, and Bond says he and the company have sufficient testimony to prove the tile removal did not violate any asbestos remediation standards.
If the EPA imposes the maximum penalty allowed - an estimated six-figure fine - Morrison-Clark could well be forced into bankruptcy. The only thing in the company's favor to date is the fact that the EPA agrees that no specific harm as a result of airborne asbestos was caused.