School District’s Asbestos Troubles Underscore Dangers of Improper Removal

06/14/2010 // Chicago, IL, USA // Cooney & Conway // Mesothelioma attorneys: Cooney & Conway

In May, when a Montpelier, Vt., school district settled a lawsuit with a local flooring company accused of improperly handling asbestos, it seemed a happy ending to a troubling story.

The insurer for flooring contractor Morrison-Clark, Inc. paid $65,000 to the school district to help compensate it for the cleanup. An inspector from the Vermont Department of Health had determined that workers were not properly handling the asbestos floor tiles they were tearing up at the Middle Street Middle School in 2008.

Ultimately, the Montpelier School District spent more than $88,000 to safely remove the material. The asbestos was gone, and the teachers and students were finally able to start the school year.

The case, however, highlights the great danger of asbestos today. While the health risks of the building material—popular in past decades due to its heat- and fire-resistant qualities—are well known, much asbestos still remains in insulation, ceilings, and other parts of countless structures across the country.

And because asbestos particles are most dangerous when airborne—when they can be easily inhaled—any work that disturbs it, such as renovation or demolition projects, is particularly risky. That’s why states have enacted strict regulations regarding the handling and removal of asbestos.

School settings are particularly worrisome, because one of the greatest risks of asbestos exposure is mesothelioma, a nearly always fatal cancer of the protective lining covering many of the body’s organs. Because mesothelioma typically does not develop until decades after exposure, school-age children who inhale asbestos fibers can fall victim to the disease as they enter middle age, right in the prime of life, devastating families.

While mesothelioma lawyers have seen great success obtaining large settlements and jury awards for clients suffering from the deadly disease—and other grave conditions like lung cancer that asbestos exposure can trigger—medical progress has been slow. So even the victories in the courtroom are bittersweet.

The Vermont case demonstrates that even with all of today’s knowledge about asbestos risks and the regulations to mitigate them, handling the cancer-causing material is not easy or cheap. And many contractors get it wrong.

Morrison-Clark was one of them.

In addition to its settlement with the school district, the company agreed to pay $27,500 to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which claimed that the company violated the Clean Air Act as well as the National Emission Standard for Asbestos.

“Specifically, Morrison-Clark failed to provide written notice to the EPA before starting the work, (failed) to wet the asbestos while stripping it and keep it wet until collected and contained for disposal, and, also, failed to properly handle and dispose of asbestos-containing waste that was generated,” the EPA wrote in announcing the settlement.

As part of its settlement with the EPA, Morrison-Clark will be prohibited from participating in any future demolition or renovation involving vinyl asbestos tile.

In the past year, Vermont’s Department of Health—which was tipped off to Morrison-Clark’s asbestos violations by an anonymous phone call—has taken 24 compliance actions for asbestos work gone wrong.

But inspections and fines aren’t the only result of improper asbestos handling. This incident, for example, also generated considerable anxiety within the Main Street Middle School community—particularly people who worked in or had children at the school. The Montpelier school was forced to delay the start of its academic year by a week while the asbestos was cleaned up and removed.

“It certainly was a very significant inconvenience for the middle school teachers, students, and parents,” said John Hollar, chairman of the Montpelier School Board. “There was a lot of anxiety about potential exposure to hazardous materials.”

This news story was provided by the mesothelioma lawyers at Cooney & Conway. For more than half a century, we’ve brought relief—and recovery—for those injured by the negligence or harmful actions of others. In the process, we’ve litigated some of the country’s most significant asbestos lawsuits, helping victims of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other asbestos-related diseases get answers and justice.

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