Missing ceiling tiles that exposed 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.
A Kansas contractor, Hall-Kimbrell Environmental Services, was paid approximately $1 million by Baltimore County to assess asbestos contamination in all 147 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 the company inspected. And it specifically mentioned sprayed-on asbestos material, as well as vinyl floor tile and wall and ceiling plaster.
The EPA urged reviews of all school management plans done by Hall-Kimbrell.
Early in September, an EPA-certified inspector began the reinspection, 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.
Because school officials were not aware that the beam was exposed by the damaged tiles, the problem went unchecked.
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.
On Jan. 21, an EPA-certified inspector looked above the missing tiles, noticed the exposed, flaking asbestos on the beam, and, Mr. Geis quipped, "had cardiac arrest."
Subsequent tests revealed unacceptable levels of asbestos in the air in some classrooms. In one location, the tests showed levels 40 times higher than federal standards.
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. The 515 students are attending classes at five neighboring schools.