In Vermont, the Montpelier School District is seeking restitution from South Barre-based Morrison-Clark, Inc., a family-owned regional floor covering sales and installation dealership.
The suit results from what Montpelier School District officials described as damages resulting from Morrison-Clark's questionable handling of asbestos debris cleanup last summer at a renovation at Main Street Middle School.
The debris resulted from the removal of what the Vermont Department of Health believes were asbestos tiles, and the damages - $88,379 - are in consequence of that removal, which was not conducted under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), designed to prevent or mitigate asbestos-related exposures in schools, whether public, private or religious.
The AHERA provisions mandate a regimen of observational, informational and instructional policies that protect America's school-age children, and include: inspection (and re-inspection) for asbestos; the development of an asbestos management plan; dissemination of the plan and any asbestos remediation or abatement plans scheduled or undertaken; the designation of an asbestos liaison person; the use of licensed personnel in inspection, remediation or abatement; asbestos-awareness training for custodial staff.
Asbestos fibers, released from broken, damaged or otherwise friable asbestos-containing materials, can be ingested or inhaled, and lead to a number of diseases, including asbestosis - a debilitating respiratory ailment resulting from prolonged asbestos exposure - to various lung and digestive system cancers, including mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is cancer of the mesothelial lining of the lungs and abdomen, the most common of which is pleural (lung) mesothelioma. Because the disease does not produce significant symptoms for up to five decades, it is usually found to have invaded, and involved, major organs like the heart and lungs. It is commonly fatal, and most patients diagnosed with mesothelioma are given from a year to 18 months to live. Ten percent may survive up to five years.
The issue first surfaced a year ago, when the school was closed after a Vermont Department of Health investigator saw Morrison-Clark installers removing what it believed were asbestos tiles with a mechanical chipper, which rapidly removes tile surfaces in pieces via a moving blade. The workers also reportedly failed to provide ventilation protection (sealed spaces, positive-air pressure, and intermittent air sampling) as mandated by state law.
Appropriate measures were later undertaken, and the work resumed, but the ensuing delay resulted in Main Street Middle School students returning to the building five days after the start of the 2008-09 school year. The school district has refused to pay for the work accomplished because asbestos dust was found in a ventilation duct, but still hopes to settle the matter out of court.
The school district charges the firm with neglect for failing to follow state regulations during removal; breach of contract for stating that the work would meet said regulations; and consumer fraud because the firm represented itself as having the experience to complete the work according to regulations. Costs to the school district include almost $24,000 to hire a licensed asbestos removal and decontamination firm, another $26,400 for another, similar contractor, and miscellaneous fees, and $38,000 in miscellaneous costs - part of which may represent emotional distress and anxiety suffered by employees working in the school at the time.
Morrison-Clark legal representatives insist workers did follow state regulations - even to the use of an approved asbestos-tile chipper - and that no asbestos contamination was ever found. The company also says it complied with wet-asbestos removal and disposal requirements set by the state, and disagrees with the Vermont Dept. of Health inspector's interpretation of events.
In addition to the school district suit, Morrison-Clark has also been fined by Vermont's OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) division. The Vermont Department of Health and the state's environmental protection division may also enforce some type of administrative action, discipline or fines.