By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“This feels so eleventh-hour,” one frustrated parent said toward the end of an online meeting today about asbestos-removal work at Lafayette Elementary.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. In response to copious concerns voiced by staff and parents, Seattle Public Schools‘ project-team leaders met with them this afternoon toward the end of the last workday before the work is set to start. The work actually was supposed to get going this past Monday – as noted here a week ago when the district sent us a community notice – but was pushed back so concerns could be addressed. (Here’s a letter from staff and PTSA members spelling out the concerns.)
The asbestos removal is the opening act of a project that has been in the works for going on two years – earthquake-proofing work, fire-sprinkler installation, and replacement of the school’s 70-year-old boiler. It’s the consolation prize of sorts for Lafayette having been passed over for a rebuild in the district’s most-recent BEX levy, though it was listed as “priority” for condition/capacity concerns during levy planning. (It’s not likely to be up for a rebuild for 10 to 15 years, one district official said today when the topic came up.)
Though the overall project is long-planned, the asbestos-removal component wasn’t mentioned until last week, staff and parents say.
The district stresses that the asbestos-removal work will not be done while students are at school, and will not be done in any areas they use, but concerned staff and parents contend that it should wait a month until school’s out. The district contends that it has to get going now in order to finish the boiler replacement and seismic work before staffers return to get ready for fall.
The district officials and contractor reps who led the meeting repeatedly stressed their respective decades of experience and extensive safety plans. SPS capitol projects director Richard Best insisted that the asbestos-removal work “is an activity you shouldn’t be concerned about” and said multiple times that the only reason they’re concerned is one word – “asbestos.”
Project manager Tom Gut outlined the work to be done by subcontractor Northwest Metals and Salvage with NOVO Laboratory and Consulting: Crews working in the late afternoon and evening will cut away sections of the asbestos-lined boiler pipe and remove the pipe in 10-foot sections through “hatches” from utility corridors, opening to the outside of the building.
NOVO vice president/co-owner Rich Carlson explained that this is “Class 1” work, meaning it’s enclosed and contained with negative air pressure and a “complete air change in the workspace every 15 minutes.” They will be monitoring air elsewhere in the building too, not just in the areas where they’re doing work. He said his company had worked on more than 100 SPS projects – this is their third one at Lafayette – and has “no track record” of any trouble.
This kind of work “can definitely be done safely,” stressed the district’s environmental-safety director Troy White.
It’s not even a “complicated asbestos removal project,” emphasized Best. “Minimal, minimal risk.”
Some in attendance didn’t seem swayed. When Best said this is a multimillion-dollar project (~$3 million, to be precise) and needs to stay on track, adding that the district does hundreds of millions of dollars in construction every year, one parent retorted that as impressive as those numbers may sound, “Our children’s lives are priceless” and the project should be delayed “until there’s no little lungs and teachers’ lungs” in the building.
The project team noted that one change already had been made in response to concerns voiced at a staff meeting last Friday, one day after the staff got first word of the asbestos-removal plan – they had scrapped a plan to move material through one part of a hallway, and now everything will go out via the “hatches” from the utility tunnels to outdoors.
One parent wondered if the school will look like a construction zone, observing that students already had experienced enough disruption in the past year. The only difference they’ll notice is air-quality monitors set up in classrooms to ensure any “breach’ would be detected, the team replied; otherwise, the workers will be arriving as school is letting out, entering only through the custodial door on the school’s south side along SW Lander, and long gone before students arrive the next day. “You’re not going to see a disruption.”
By meeting’s end, the prospects of convincing the district to delay the work seemed dim. Senior project manager Jeanette Imanishi said she would be at Lafayette on Monday afternoon as the crew arrived to get going. Best promised a weekly email progress report that could be circulated to the school staff and families. “We’ll monitor this project very closely,” he promised.