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Updated. Lawsuit states asbestos remained in old St. Helens Middle School building when it was demolished

PMG FILE PHOTO - Demolition of the former St. Helens Middle School occurred in early summer. A lawsuit filed the St. Helens School District last week argues the company hired to remove asbestos from the building prior to demolition failed to do so.

UPDATED Nov. 11 at 11:36 a.m. with comment from school district.

The St. Helens School District is suing a company it had hired to oversee asbestos abatement at the St. Helens Middle School in 2009 and again in 2018, alleging the company failed to successfully complete its work despite signing a certification to that effect.

As a result, the lawsuit contends, the school district earlier this year demolished the former middle school building unaware of the lingering presence of asbestos, which is a known carcinogen that can become trapped in a person's lungs after it becomes airborne.

Also, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is requiring the school district to again perform asbestos remediation at the middle school site at "significant additional expense," the lawsuit explains.

The district is seeking a minimum $389,654 in damages, plus interest and expenses associated with the lawsuit, which was filed Oct. 29 in Columbia County Circuit Court.

Whether people were exposed to airborne asbestos is unclear. Questions posed to the school district about exposure and, if exposure did happen, whether those people were notified, were not returned by the Spotlight's press time Thursday.

The school district on Friday, Nov. 9, issued a statement about the presence of asbestos.

"In accordance with the requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency, the St. Helens School District engaged a professional environmental services firm to inspect and assess the old middle school site for hazardous materials and to design a plan for removal and disposal of such materials. The same firm was later engaged to oversee, monitor and report on the proper removal and disposal of noted materials during the demolition of the structure," the statement reads.

It continues, "On October 4, 2019, the St. Helens School District was contacted by The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) regarding the presence of suspected asbestos containing materials in demolition debris at the middle school site. Testing of material indicated that black mastic associated with attaching vinyl floor tile to the concrete subfloor, which is considered safe enough to be exempt from regulation in its intact non-friable form, was now exposed in building debris. Even though the mastic is generally pliable and unlikely to be rendered friable, the District has been working through remediation steps under the guidance of DEQ in accordance with Oregon Administrative Rules and will continue to do so until the matter is resolved to the satisfaction of both the District and DEQ." 

In 2009, the school district hired PBS Engineering and Environmental Inc. as the project manager with the job of overseeing, inspecting and monitoring the removal of asbestos-containing materials from the St. Helens Middle School. Part of the company's job involved removing 16,850 square feet of asbestos-containing floor tile and mosaic.

When finished, PBS, which has offices in Portland and Vancouver, Washington, issued an "Asbestos Abatement Closeout Report" certifying the asbestos removal had been performed in compliance with federal, state and local regulations, the lawsuit states.

"In fact, it was not," notes the lawsuit, which was filed by Tonkon Torp LLP, a Portland firm, on behalf of the school district.

In 2018, in the lead up to the district's construction of a new bond-funded middle school, PBS was again employed by the school district to evaluate the middle school for asbestos and removal prior to demolition, the lawsuit states.

On July 3, PBS wrote that the asbestos and lead piping had been removed.

"At this point in time, all asbestos (and lead piping) abatement at the St. Helens Middle School has been completed/cleared ..." the lawsuit notes of PBS' correspondence to school officials.

"In fact, 'hot' asbestos containing mastic remained, in the areas that PBS had previously approved, in concentrations that were unacceptable under state law," the lawsuit continues. "As a consequence, the Oregon DEQ is requiring SHSD to again perform asbestos remediation at the Middle School site at significant additional expense." Asbestos is a commercial name for a variety of naturally occurring fibrous minerals used for decades in products such as insulation, fireproofing materials, textiles, cement and wallboard, notes the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.

"When handled, asbestos can separate into microscopic-size particles that remain in the air and are easily inhaled," the site explains. "Persons occupationally exposed to asbestos have developed several types of life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma."

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