Missing ceiling tiles exposing dangerous asbestos were not replaced for months at Sussex Elementary because school officials had faulty information about the location of asbestos in the building.
A review of a 1988 report concerning Sussex, on which the school relied to pinpoint asbestos dangers, showed that the inspection failed to identify a beam sprayed with asbestos that two months ago forced officials to close the building.
The Kansas-based contractor that did the inspection, Hall-Kimbrell Environmental Services, was paid approximately $1 million by Baltimore County to assess asbestos contamination in all 147 county public schools, officials said.
In an Aug. 21 letter sent to school superintendents and principals in more than 5,000 schools nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency warned that Hall-Kimbrell had prepared some flawed asbestos management plans. It said that the contractor missed materials containing asbestos in some school buildings it had inspected. And it specifically mentioned sprayed-on asbestos material, as well as vinyl floor tile, wall and ceiling plaster.
The EPA urged the review of all school management plans done by Hall-Kimbrell and reminded school officials that they were "legally responsible for the preparation of a written plan to manage asbestos."
Early in September, an EPA-certified inspector began reinspecting Baltimore County public schools, according to Kiki Geis, supervisor of environmental services for county schools.
At that time, school officials already had access to a June 1991 report from the chief custodian at Sussex, identifying falling or missing ceiling tiles in more than 10 rooms at the school. But Hall-Kimbrell's report on Sussex did not indicate an asbestos-covered beam between the ceiling tiles and the roof that runs the perimeter of most of the building -- though it was clearly delineated on the school's blueprints and inconstruction specifications.
Because school officials were not aware that the beam was exposed by the damaged tiles, the problem went unchecked.
Worse, the Hall-Kimbrell report incorrectly noted that the ceiling tile at Sussex contained asbestos. That meant it had to be replaced by a person certified to work with asbestos, not a regular school custodian. Because missing ceiling tile, with or without asbestos, is not considered an emergency by the school system, the damaged tile wasn't examined, though Mr. Geis concedes that "someone should have looked at it."
Mr. Geis said the county would have reacted to the custodian's report had it known the asbestos-covered beam existed behind the defective ceiling tiles. "Someone would have been out there to take care of it right away," he said.
Nonetheless, seven months passed. On Jan. 21, an EPA-certified inspector, conducting the reinspection the federal agency had advised, looked above the missing tiles, noticed the exposed, flaking asbestos on the beam, and, Mr. Geis quipped, "had cardiac arrest."
The inspector reported that the school's asbestos management plan did not clearly identify all the building materials that contain asbestos. And subsequent tests revealed unacceptable levels of asbestos in the air in various classrooms and, in one location, levels that were 40 times higher than federal standards allow.
On Jan. 24, the school, in the 500 block of Woodward Drive in Essex, was closed. Officials say it will take the rest of the academic year to complete the abatement process. The 515 students are attending classes at five neighboring schools.
The reinspections of all other schools in the county should be completed by the end of June.