SCHOOLS: Staff, parent concerns about asbestos removal lead to last-minute meeting at Lafayette Elementary

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.

17 Replies to "SCHOOLS: Staff, parent concerns about asbestos removal lead to last-minute meeting at Lafayette Elementary"

  • Former mom May 22, 2021 (12:23 am)

    I wonder if they ever tested the cracked and sloughing tile in the former kindergarten rooms. Covering them with tape didn’t seem like best idea, but you’d get scolded if you mentioned it too loud. 

  • flimflam May 22, 2021 (1:00 am)

    Huh. The entire last year would seem to be a good time to work on this.

  • MJ May 22, 2021 (2:57 am)

    No!  Leave these kids alone! No extra monitors, no added chance of danger. No more peril. 

  • Lafayette Parent May 22, 2021 (9:16 am)

    Thank you so much for covering this. There are a lot of parents that feel the asbestos issue could have been dealt with at any other time (other than the next 4 weeks). The fact that everything is on the record and attention is getting paid to the process makes a lot of people feel better, thanks WSB!

  • Auntie May 22, 2021 (9:47 am)

    Instead of doing this work while the school is empty, they wait until students are back in class. I think “plan” is the wrong word for this project. Lack of planning is more appropriate. This should have been done while the building was not in use.

    • Auntie May 22, 2021 (1:57 pm)

      Or maybe wait three more weeks until school is out? Seriously – why did it have to be done right now while kids are in class. After all the previous delays, another three weeks wouldn’t really matter, would it?

  • WS5 May 22, 2021 (12:45 pm)

    They couldn’t do it this past year because we were dealing with a pandemic a lot of stuff had to stop to keep people safe.  Construction workers and asbestos removal people also lost a lot of working hours to stay safe.

  • WS mom May 22, 2021 (3:48 pm)

    The boiler work could not be done in the winter months because there was always the possibility of reopening the school to children. Staff continued to use the building as well. The building needed the boiler for heat. The work was scheduled to start in June of 2020 but was postponed indefinitely. By the time work was feasible to start, the boiler was already in use. Staff has known about this project since January of 2020. 

    • Auntie May 22, 2021 (7:31 pm)

      And again I ask – at this point, why not wait three weeks until school is out and avoid all the angst? The boiler would be shut down, the students and teachers would be gone.

    • Lafayette teacher May 23, 2021 (6:43 am)

      WS mom your comment that staff has known about this project since January 2020 is simply not true. We were only alerted on May 13th about the aspestos abatement. Otherwise we were told we were just undergoing construction for seismic design. also WSB, thanks so much for covering this meeting. The summary is factual and exactly what was said.

  • the truth May 22, 2021 (5:35 pm)

    A lot of amateur constuction PM’s on here today.  This is about the least dangerous and most controllable asbestos removal work you can do.  Given the negative pressure air system being used this is just being way amped up by people who get freaked out by the word asbestos.  Let them do their work so they can wrap the project up and get kids back in the classroom full-time next year. If you are still scared, have your kids remote for the next 4 weeks.

  • Mj May 22, 2021 (5:37 pm)

    WS5 – have you seen an asbestos worker geared up to do their work?  If anyone could have continued to work it was them, the protection from asbestos would have served double duty and also protected them from Covid-19!

  • Lagartija Nick May 22, 2021 (6:11 pm)

    Aren’t all those “little lungs” supposed to be wearing masks anyway? 

    • WSB May 22, 2021 (6:37 pm)

      Those don’t filter asbestos fibers.

  • aWS Resident May 23, 2021 (11:44 am)

    Parents of these school kids are understandably alarmed
    because they hear the scary word – asbestos. 
    Asbestos hazards can be severely misunderstood if you just read the
    headlines driven by lawyers searching for clients. Do a little of your own
    research and you will find there is no need to be worried, if the asbestos
    abatement is done legally by a responsible contractor.  Asbestos is only hazardous when airborne and
    inhaled.  The contractors have very
    specific steps required by law and developed to ensure there are no asbestos
    fibers released.  These can include walling
    off the area with plastic sheeting and making it close to airtight and attaching
    HEPA vacuums to capture and filter all the air so that no fibers can escape.  Additionally, the affected materials are thoroughly
    wetted so they can’t go airborne.  Then
    the material is removed and double bagged in special bags before being removed
    from the building.  These are just two of
    many steps, backed up by constant air monitoring to ensure nothing was
    released.  The hazard presented by this
    job is almost zero.  I have been trained
    and licensed to work with asbestos, and the facts that I have presented are
    verifiable.  In actuality, kids will
    probably inhale more asbestos playing on the sports field than in the
    school.  Asbestos is a naturally occurring
    mineral.  People inhale hundreds of
    fibers per day just walking around outside and are not affected.  I repeat, there is almost no risk to this
    small part of the project. Let them do the work for which they are trained and
    prepared, without backlash from less than fully informed reactions. Relax. Do your
    research and you will find that while there are many things to be concerned
    about nowadays, this is not one of them.  

    • zark00 May 24, 2021 (1:24 pm)

      Nobody cares about how safe you think asbestos is. If given a choice, I will not expose my kids to asbestos, duh.This was clearly a botched plan, they are now behind, and have to force the asbestos removal while kids are in school.Any reasonable person can figure out that, regardless of what armchair asbestos experts claim, planning to remove asbestos while kids are in class is a stupid idea full stop.If it’s so completely safe, why does every class room need an asbestos detector now?Ridiculous.

  • Tonya May 25, 2021 (9:55 am)

    “Minimal, minimal risk.” How about going with the no-risk option?  The district had years to plan with the construction company.  Failure to implement a thoughtful timeline is not an excuse to bring even the most “minimal risk” to children and staff.  

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