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SCHOOL ASBESTOS `CRISIS' LOOMING; SAFETY TEAM WILL ASK FOR STATE SUPERVISION.

Byline: Greg Gittrich Staff Writer

Inspectors found serious asbestos contamination at a second Los Angeles Unified high school Saturday, and safety officials warned of a ``potential crisis'' due to the way repairs funded with bonds were carried out districtwide.

The district's environmental safety team will ask state regulatory agencies to oversee the cleanup of asbestos after finding evidence that LAUSD officials did not properly inspect construction jobs and contractors did not properly handle asbestos.

Of about 150 that have been inspected, two schools have widespread problems and an additional 10 have had areas cordoned off at some time during the last week. About 300 remain to be inspected.

Barry Groveman, head of the district's safety team, characterized the problem as a ``potential crisis that should never have happened.''

He could not say to what extent students or staff may have been exposed to asbestos.

``This is definitely worse than we originally thought,'' Groveman said. ``I'm seeing a total breakdown of the district's management of asbestos.

``The district's trained health and safety inspectors were never told about many of the construction projects. They were not instructed to monitor the work. This is very disturbing.''

While officials had hoped to reopen Palisades High School by Monday, asbestos contamination at the campus will keep the school closed until it can be certified as safe, said Bill Panos, director of the LAUSD Environmental Health and Safety Branch.

Asbestos contamination was found Saturday at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, according to sources close to the emergency inspections.

District officials will announce the closure of the school today, forcing thousands of students to stay home until the classrooms and administrative offices can be cleaned, sources said.

Tracing contamination

Confidential memos obtained by the Daily News say the contamination resulted from ``routine construction activity'' that has been ``under way for some time.'' The vast majority of the work is being financed through the Proposition BB bond measure.

While cleanup efforts continue, several unidentified contractors who worked on projects at schools where contamination was found are now involved in other projects, the confidential correspondence notes.

Working to solve the problem, LAUSD inspectors have identified several contractors who they suspect violated the district's asbestos management policies and possibly state laws. The companies will be suspended by the district on Monday.

``We are not going to open any of the closed schools or individual rooms that have been cordoned off until we get some outside review,'' said Angelo Bellomo, a key environmental safety team member. ``We need the additional, outside layer of oversight to ensure there is no danger.''

Special task force

The safety team is assembling a special task force, consisting of officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and California OSHA.

Groveman said allowing the district to sign off on the potentially contaminated schools as clean would be akin to allowing ``the fox to watch the henhouse.''

Last summer, on the heels of environmental problems at the Belmont Learning Center and mismanagement of toxic cleanup at Gratts Elementary School, Groveman asked Superintendent Ruben Zacarias to require trained professionals, not janitorial workers, to oversee all the district's environmental responsibilities.

Zacarias, who last week agreed under pressure to retire Jan. 15, issued a directive at the time transferring the duties. The order was ignored, documents say.

Zacarias could not be reached for comment.

Inspectors from the district's Environmental Health and Safety Branch have conducted spot checks at 150 schools over the last four days and plan to visit the remaining 300 as quickly as possible.

Lengthy process

It remains unclear how long it will take to clean up the asbestos and receive state certification.

The district began to probe schools for asbestos contamination after inspectors found contamination at Woodlawn Elementary School in Bell, following the Hector Mine earthquake on Oct. 17.

Construction workers had sawed and drilled into asbestos-lined air-conditioning ducts and may have disturbed the deadly fibers when installing thermostats into walls.

Along with Woodlawn Elementary School, and Palisades and Roosevelt high schools, areas remained cordoned off at Columbus Middle School in Canoga Park, Hamilton High School downtown, Century Park Elementary School in Inglewood, Monte Vista Elementary School in Highland Park, Virgil Middle School in the Westlake area, and Westchester Prep High School.

According to Groveman, critical environmental functions still not under control of the LAUSD Environmental Health and Safety Branch include the district's compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, maintenance of underground storage tanks, and oversight of safety equipment, including gas extraction systems at several schools.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 7, 1999
Words:760
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