School asbestos removal causes worries

LAWRENCE — The president of the Lawrence Teachers Union wants the entire Bruce School closed while contractors remove as many as 5,000 ceiling tiles containing asbestos from a wing of the building that was shut after a fire on Nov. 14.

“If it breaks up, it causes cancer. That’s very concerning,” union leader Frank McLaughlin said Thursday about the asbestos tiles. “I’m uncomfortable having the teachers and students there while they’re removing asbestos in another wing. All of that is connected.”

Asbestos was used for insulation and other building purposes because it is highly heat resistant, but is now banned in the United States because its dust is a carcinogen. Asbestos is harmless when intact, but its particles go airborne when broken and can lodge in the lungs.

Removing the ceiling tiles — a mixture of cement and asbestos — will be the first stage in the $2 million reconstruction of the wing of the Bruce School where the fire occurred. The wing housed about 230 of the Bruce School’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, who were relocated to St. Mary’s School after the fire and are not expected to return until September.

Another wing housing some 230 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and about two dozen teachers was not damaged in the fire. Those students returned to the school a week after the blaze.

McLaughlin says those students also should be relocated to other buildings while the asbestos is removed. He called on the state Department of Public Health to monitor the asbestos remediation and certify that both parts of the building are safe and the air is clear before anyone is allowed to return. 

Chris Markuns, a spokesman for school Superintendent Jeff Riley, responded to McLaughlin’s concerns in an email, but did not respond to a question about whether the students would be moved.

“Everyone involved — Lawrence Public Schools, city officials, the Bruce community — shares the conviction that the health of students and staff comes before anything else,” Markuns said. “The remediation process, which should be finalized over the next couple weeks, will be approved by and coordinated with the state Department of Public Health. We would only move forward with a process that Mass. DPH, contractors, and insurers agree prioritizes occupant safety.”

The state Department of Public Health has no authority over asbestos removal projects, said Tom Lyons, a spokesman for the agency.

That authority is shared by state Department of Labor Standards, which oversees removal, and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees disposal.

Michael Flanagan, a spokesman for the Department of Labor Standards, could not be reached Thursday. 

Asbestos remediation contractors typically must submit plans to the agency describing how the material will be removed before work can begin.

Glenn Gary, the supervisor of buildings and facilities for the Lawrence Department of Public Works, indicated he is operating under the assumption that none of the lower grades will be moved from the Bruce School during the work. 

He said most of the ceiling tiles will have to be broken to remove them, which will make it likely that asbestos will be released. But he said there will be plenty of precautions in place for workers and for students, teachers and staff in other parts of the school.

Among them, he said doors to the wing of the building where the asbestos will be removed will be sealed with duct tape and plastic. He said contractors will create negative air pressure inside the wing, reducing the pressure so that any air flow between the wings is toward the wing where the work will occur. He said a wash area will be set up inside the wing for workers to rinse before leaving it.

“I’m not concerned what-so-ever,” Gary said. “I’d put my granddaughter over there. It’s not going to affect students, faculty or staff in any way. The way the building is designed, the wing is isolated from the rest of the building. Any other school or configuration would be more challenging. But in this one, I’m 100 percent confident that things are gong to be fine.”

Work will begin as soon as contracts with the general contractor, Wes Construction of Halifax, Massachusetts, are signed, Gary said. The city declared the work an emergency, which allowed it to hire a contractor without bidding the job. Removing the asbestos is expected to cost $160,000, about 8 percent of the $2 million the city has budgeted for the repair project. Mayor Daniel Rivera said he expects the city’s insurance agency, Travelers Insurance, will cover all but $100,000 of the total cost. 

Wes Construction helped rebuild the Guilmette School in Lawrence when much of the interior was demolished to eradicate a mold infestation that shut the school for most of the 2010-2011 school year.

Ken Vogel, the president of Wes Construction, said he has not yet hired a subcontractor to remove the asbestos tiles at the Bruce School. He said he will ask whatever company he hires whether it has removed asbestos from an occupied building before and said the work would comply with state and federal regulations.

Bruce School principal Cheryl Merz did not return a phone call. The school has no formal Parent-Teacher Association, Markuns said.

Asbestos remediation can be a significant obstacle to redeveloping a city built in an era when the material was a common construction material, before its dangers were known. The federal Environmental Protection Agency recently completed removing asbestos from the crumbling, fire-damaged ruins of the former Merrimac Paper mill on South Canal Street, which cost about $2 million. Rivera said he hopes the remediation will make the site more attractive to private developers.


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