Concerns about asbestos lead to closing of school

Action at Johnnycake taken as `precaution'

March 28, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Afraid that potentially harmful asbestos could have been released into the air at Johnnycake Elementary School this week, Baltimore County school system officials closed the west-side school yesterday in what they called "a precaution."

The closing occurs two days after officials were roundly criticized by parents at Villa Cresta Elementary School for not responding quickly enough to a more serious asbestos release at that school.

A worker in a boiler room at Villa Cresta in Parkville cut into an asbestos-covered pipe before classes began March 20, and air samples taken in hallways eight hours later showed elevated levels of asbestos fibers. Classes were not canceled until the next day.

"I certainly think we heard loud and clear from the [Villa Cresta] community that early decisions are better than late decisions, that more information is better than less information," said Sharon Norman, director of communications for county schools. "I certainly think we are being sensitive in everything we're doing right now to address community concerns and questions."

At Johnnycake, workers became concerned after scraping caulking off a window outside the school and above the boiler room door Monday and Tuesday evenings. The Westview Park school has been undergoing a $1.97 million renovation since last summer - one of 44 elementary schools getting new boilers, pipes, sprinklers and wiring.

The contractor, Phillips Way Inc. of Owings Mills, became concerned late Tuesday that the caulking might contain asbestos. Tests were conducted in the school and were negative. But school officials, who aren't sure if the material is asbestos-based and are awaiting test results, recommended the school be closed yesterday.

Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, the only person authorized to close a school, made the decision early in the morning. The building was deemed safe enough that by yesterday afternoon a meeting of teachers was held there to discuss the situation.

Caulking less harmful

Even if the gluelike caulking material contains asbestos, it is much less harmful than asbestos fibers, which can become airborne and are more easily inhaled, said schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

The school, with the rest of the system, will be closed today for spring break and won't reopen until April 8.

Jeffrey Howard, president of Johnnycake's PTA, said he didn't hear school was closed until he was in the car en route to work yesterday. He had thought that most of the asbestos in the school had been removed five or six years ago during a renovation project. Then, he was told the rest was removed during the summer.

Howard said he was assured yesterday that the building is free of asbestos.

Villa Cresta incident

The Villa Cresta release is baffling to school system officials. The worker with subcontractor Mavis Mechanical should not have cut the pipe where he did and probably should not have cut any pipe at all, said Donald F. Krempel, executive director for facilities for county schools.

Part of the pipe had been cleared of asbestos, and that was where any cut was to be made, he said. "Why he cut that pipe, I can't answer that," Krempel said.

After the asbestos was released March 20, a "visual inspection" determined no need for concern. Air samples, taken hours later, proved the determination to be wrong. Krempel said 3D/International, a Texas company that oversees county school construction projects, should have had someone on site at all times but did not.

School officials have not decided whether action will be taken against North Point Builders of Baltimore, the Villa Cresta general contractor, he said.

Last year, at Hawthorne

The two recent scares occur after an incident last fall when Hawthorne Elementary in Middle River was closed for more than three months when an insulated pipe was cut and dragged through a hallway, releasing asbestos fibers. Pupils were sent to nearby schools while the school system completed the construction project.

Edward Gizara, vice president of the Villa Cresta PTA, said he is glad to see the school system acted quickly at Johnnycake.

"They went to the extreme, and that's probably good," he said. "If you're not sure, then why put the kids at risk?"

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