Philly’s $100 million battle to get rid of asbestos and make schools safe

The toxic substance has been found in places of learning for decades.

Benjamin Franklin High School at Broad and Spring Garden

Benjamin Franklin High School at Broad and Spring Garden

Nathaniel Hamilton / WHYY
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Both schools proposed as alternates for the 1,000 students being relocated by the School District of Philadelphia because of asbestos have also been found to contain asbestos in the last five years.

Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy students were supposed to start the year learning together in a renovated building at Broad and Spring Garden streets. Students missed two days of school after construction delayed its initial opening. Last week officials found exposed asbestos in the building’s boiler room, and have closed it to classes until further notice.

In a heated town hall meeting on Monday, School District officials told parents their possible Plan B: the high schoolers could be relocated to Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia high schools until at least January, when the city expects to have the asbestos under control.

But during the 2015-16 academic year, EPA-mandated inspections found asbestos on the premises of both those alternate locations, according to an Inquirer report. Asked how and when those schools had been cleared for classes after the finding, a district spokesperson declined to comment.

The debacle, over which some parents have reportedly called for Superintendent William Hite to resign, is just the latest in the district’s long battle against the toxic material. Anything built before 1980 is suspect.

Over the years, thousands of other Philly students have faced delays when returning from summer vacation, and the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to curb the negative effects.

Incomplete $100 million replacement effort

For decades, asbestos was a commonality in United States construction. In the first half of the 20th century, ads in the Philadelphia Inquirer the chemical as perfect for forestalling leaky roofs, offering gallons for just a dollar apiece.

A 1925 Inquirer advertised asbestos roof coating

A 1925 Inquirer advertised asbestos roof coating

Philadelphia Inquirer archives

The EPA linked asbestos to cancer and banned its use in the 1970s.

Through the 1980s, the School District of Philadelphia ran regular requests for proposals — a common method for city agencies to find people who can help get a specific job done. One from April 1981 asked for help ridding asbestos from a public school building.

It read:

ROOF REPLACEMENT, UNIVERSITY CITY. B-152 80-81 GENERAL CONTRACT ASBESTOS ABATEMENT.

The city ran almost identical RFPs at least once per month for the entire decade.

In 1982, the School District started itching to recoup its losses. It filed a mammoth lawsuit against 61 companies that had previously manufactured, sold or installed asbestos for the district. By then, officials said they had spent close to $900,000 decontaminating institutions for learning — and they weren’t halfway done.

At least eight school openings in 1984 alone were delayed due to asbestos contamination. The city settled in 1990, and results of the case weren’t made public.

Whatever the payout, it did not resolve the issue. The following year, Hartranft School in North Philly had a delayed opening when construction workers accidentally disturbed asbestos.

The School District levied a major lawsuit against asbestos manufacturers in 1982.

The School District levied a major lawsuit against asbestos manufacturers in 1982.

Philadelphia Inquirer archives

By 1995, the Inquirer reported that the School District had spent $100 million on asbestos in public schools. Officials predicted they’d continue to spend $8 million on it every year for the foreseeable future.

‘You wouldn’t send your children to Strawberry Mansion’

Last year, an Inquirer analysis of EPA records revealed that 960 public schools had damaged asbestos on site in the academic year 2015-16, adding up to more than 12,000 square feet of contamination. It also found that SDP removes or repairs asbestos more than 200 times a year.

In September, a longtime teacher in Bella Vista was diagnosed with mesothelioma — a cancer linked to asbestos exposure. It’s unclear if their 17-year tenure in Philly public schools was directly related.

Later that month, the combined Benjamin Franklin High School and SLA was found to have asbestos in the boiler room. That’s when the School District realized it had to come up with a new plan. Enter Strawberry Mansion and South Philadelphia high schools.

So far, parents don’t like the relocation proposal very much — they worried their kids wouldn’t be safe in the new schools, or they wouldn’t have enough space to learn.

“Hell no,” yelled one parent at the Monday morning town hall meeting.

“I know you wouldn’t send your children to Strawberry Mansion,” Franklin parent Charlotte Williams told Superintendent William Hite, according to WHYY. “That’s not even an option. I swear I will transfer my children to a different school before I send them there.”

In the 2015-16 academic year, South Philadelphia High School had four reports of the toxic chemical, while Strawberry Mansion had a whopping 15.

At the Broad and Snyder school in South Philly, asbestos was found in the floor tiles of a fifth-floor classroom, a science lab and the school’s operations office. In North Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion’s school was riddled with the contaminant: in classrooms, offices, the auditorium, the music room, the cafeteria and the kitchen.

The crowd at the Monday meeting resented the idea so firmly that a few parents actually suggested Hite resign. Faced with that response, he backtracked.

“Obviously, after this conversation, we’ll need to rethink that,” Hite said at the town hall meeting, per the Inquirer

Until the plan is finalized, a spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia declined to comment on the presence of asbestos inside Strawberry Mansion or South Philadelphia public schools.

“We missed on this one,” Hite said. “But now one of the things we want to focus on is what do we do now to ensure that we get young people back into classrooms as quickly as possible?”

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