Abestos danger in some schools?

September 3, 2009 9:41:49 PM PDT
A whistleblower concerned about possible asbestos contamination in city schools says he finally has proof -- Video of discarded bags marked asbestos and unprotected pipes. School steamfitter John Kielbasa has been locked in a legal battle with the Department of Education over asbestos.

He says the city has used trumped up disciplinary charges to silence him about the potential dangers of the cancer-causing material through-out schools.

Just a few weeks ago, he and his attorney brought video to Eyewitness News which they claim conclusively shows the asbestos hazard.

"We are in the basement of Park East High School," the attorney is head saying on the tape.

It did not take long for the whistleblower's attorney and hazardous material expert to find problems:

"We found three bags with word danger contains asbestos, the word cancer, avoid breathing," the attorney says on the recording.

The bags marked asbestos were sealed, but one clearly had a hole, and there was no way of telling how long the material had been sitting in the storage room of Park East High in Harlem. The asbestos was likely put there after an abatement project somewhere in the school.

"It's great if they mitigate the problem, but the by-product of that mitigation shouldn't be sitting there for months. It should be taken away and handled as hazardous material," said Peter Gleason, the whistleblower's attorney.

They found another bag marked asbestos in a ventilation room at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. The bag was covered with dust, suggesting it had been there a long time. For several years, John Kielbasa, a steam fitter for city schools, had been filing reports whenever he spotted an asbestos problems. Sometimes they were fixed, but he says some were ignored. When he took samples and had them tested, the city Department of Education charged him with ''misconduct'' for "removing" "building materials."

"This is clear cut retaliation for a whistleblower who is brave enough to stand up and say you know what, there are hazards in our school and we need to do something about it," Gleason said.

For the past two years, John Kielbasa has been ordered to report to work at a school facility building where he does nothing but sit behind a desk. As part of his fight against disciplinary charges, an administrative judge recently ruled he and his attorney could enter some schools to take pictures and video.

"Directly above sink we have piping that has deteriorated,"Kielbasa said.

The video taken just weeks ago inside the Manhattan Math and Science Center shows an exposed pipe in a locker room that Kielbasa says he reported to school officials three years ago. The picture he took back then shows the exact pipe. Loose particles he took to a lab tested positive for asbestos. Fast forward to just a few weeks ago, same location, same pipe still exposed and shedding debris. Kielbasa would not talk on camera for fear of being fired, his expert though did not hold back.

"How can they say the kids are not at risk when we have a picture going back to 2006 to today that the pipe wrap has been compromised over students where they're washing their hands?" hazardous material expert Hugo Lopez said.

Confined to a desk in this building, a school steamfitter of 22 years may no longer be able to file his asbestos reports but now with this video, he and his attorney see vindication, but more importantly, proof of a hazard that can no longer be ignored:

"This could have been prevented had they listened to my client," Gleason said.

A school spokesperson says the asbestos discovered in the storage areas were double-bagged.

She adds that all of it had been properly disposed by an approved asbestos removal company.

This happened the day after Keilbasa's attorney reported it to OSHA.

As for the locker room pipe, the spokesperson says that area is no longer in use because of planned construction.

She adds that testing of the schools in question back in 2007 showed the air quality was safe.

If you have a tip about this or any other issue you'd like investigated, please give our tipline a call at 877-TIP-NEWS. You may also e-mail us at the.investigators@abc.com.

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