Schools
 

State environmental agency investigating asbestos contamination at New Orleans school

Marta Jewson / The Lens

The Julius Rosenwald Elementary building was supposed to open its doors as Rosenwald Collegiate Academy in August 2018. But air quality tests performed by the charter school showed problematic levels of airborne asbestos. The school is the third in Orleans Parish to undergo an asbestos clean-up this year.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality wants to know what went wrong at the Rosenwald school building, where contractors will be doing a $1.3 million asbestos clean-up.

This is the third asbestos clean-up required at an Orleans Parish public school this year. State and local school officials note no students were present at Rosenwald when the cancer-causing material was detected in an air quality test in early May. Still, an expert at DEQ told The Lens that the contamination never should have happened.

Senior Environmental Scientist Dwight Bradshaw oversees asbestos work for LDEQ in New Orleans.

“If you’re following the regulations you should not have had this contamination throughout the building,” Bradshaw said. “It shouldn’t have happened.”

State officials say work at the building was performed in line with its asbestos management plan. The state-run Recovery School District, the Orleans Parish school district and a charter school network all had access to the building in the spring. But no one is taking responsibility for the problem.

Now, Bradshaw is looking for answers.

“We’re still investigating,” he said on the phone Monday. “What was done and who did it — it’s not clear yet. We’re getting different answers from different people.”

Asbestos, a commonly used building material until the 1980s, is dangerous when its fibers becomes airborne. Many old schools may contain the fire-retardant material in floor tiles and adhesive, ceiling tiles and pipe insulation. It is generally safe unless renovations or other activities disturb the material.

The state-run Recovery School District, which formerly controlled the 46-year-old building, returned it to the Orleans Parish School Board on April 1. But the RSD still had construction projects underway at the time.

According to an RSD project outline, several tile replacement projects were on the state agency’s list of things to do.

Louisiana Department of Education Chief Operating Officer Bridget Devlin said RSD work was ongoing in May when an air quality test came back positive for asbestos.

“Their work then halted,” she said.

However, Devlin said RSD wasn’t the only agency overseeing work.

“There were projects in addition to those overseen by the RSD also occurring at that time and it unclear which project may have caused the airborne asbestos,” Devlin said.

The Orleans Parish school district took control of the school on April 1 and was not performing work there prior to that, a spokeswoman said.

“The Orleans Parish School Board did not manage the Rosenwald building or the work performed in the building until April 1 of 2018,” spokeswoman Dominique Ellis wrote in an email.

The Orleans Parish school district had also given Collegiate Academies, the charter network that planned to open a school there in August, access to the building. Collegiate’s spokeswoman Zoey Reed said the network “did not perform construction at any time or make any modifications to the facility.”

Collegiate had obtained a bid for a “non asbestos” tile project, which eventually led to the airborne asbestos discovery.

Collegiate’s tests on certain tile sections came back clean but the testing agency recommended the charter network test the air too. A few days later, Collegiate’s consultant emailed Adam Reed, the charter school network’s director of facilities, saying that “asbestos fibers were identified above the required clearance standard in multiple air samples.”

Zoey Reed said the network flagged the district. “OPSB then took control of the building and all abatement work required to make the facility safe.”

Collegiate’s new high school, which was supposed to go in the Rosenwald building, is operating at a temporary site this school year.

Asbestos on site

On May 3, Adam Reed expressed concerns about the state of floor tile in the building.

“We have a large amount of blue/green flooring that seems to be from a replacement job years ago,” he wrote in an email to Orleans district officials. “The replacement flooring is popping up due to heat and moisture and the building not having air flow due to the HVAC system being down or shut off from the past.”

“The floor also is popping up because of improper installation,” he continued, noting flooring vendors guessed either the previous workers used the wrong glue or didn’t clean thoroughly before laying the tile.

The building was known to have material that contained asbestos. It is in some floor tile and the glue attaching it in several parts of the building, according to an asbestos management plan, a document required for schools.

The air quality test, showing an asbestos release, came back on May 5.

It’s unclear where exactly work was done. DEQ officials weren’t informed of any work plans before renovations began. That would be required for any job where at least 64 square feet of floor tile that either contained asbestos or was glued down with an asbestos-containing mastic was being removed, Bradshaw said.

“We didn’t get any notification on floor tile removal,” he said. “We didn’t get anything about inspection about tile prior to removal.”

Bradshaw said he hasn’t gotten any answers about how much tile was removed, and whether it was enough to trigger a notification to DEQ. Regardless, any contractor should have known about the presence of asbestos, Bradshaw said, and should have taken precautions to avoid an asbestos release.

“Before you do a renovation, you either assume it’s asbestos or you sample it,” he said.

Devlin, the state education department’s chief of operations, said work was done in accordance with the management plan.

But if that’s the case, Bradshaw said, there shouldn’t have been any contamination. Since he began his investigation, Bradshaw has had little luck getting records — specifically, the construction contracts — to pinpoint what went wrong and why.

“We’re looking for answers. Who did it, how they did it, and who knew what when,” Bradshaw said. “People don’t want to be honest when they know they’re going to be in big trouble.”

He said the last time the state reviewed the school’s asbestos management plan was in 2012, and it found no issues. The document would be consulted by any contractor performing work on the building.

Two other New Orleans schools have had asbestos problems this year. On a previous job, a Recovery School District contractor mishandled asbestos. As a result Lafayette Academy searching for a new school building this summer. Its new home, the old McDonogh 35 building, also required asbestos abatement after an Orleans Parish School Board contractor caused an asbestos release.

Earlier this month, the Orleans Parish School Board approved the $1.3 million clean-up contract for Rosenwald. They also increased their contract with an environmental services firm, which manages asbestos and other environmental testing in schools.

“There’s multiple layers of responsibility in this thing,” Bradshaw said. “Somebody will be referred to enforcement.”

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About Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.