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Missed asbestos, dangerous dust: How Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin H.S. project went wrong

The district ignored early warnings from contractors, alarmed by the extent of the asbestos, and pushed an untenable deadline to complete work before the 2019-20 school year.

The sixth floor of Benjamin Franklin High School, which is still under construction. A construction project to co-locate Franklin with Science Leadership Academy has been fraught with problems.
The sixth floor of Benjamin Franklin High School, which is still under construction. A construction project to co-locate Franklin with Science Leadership Academy has been fraught with problems.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / File Photograph

A few weeks into the school year, Benjamin Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy parents received an urgent note: Damaged asbestos had been discovered inside ducts in the boiler room and first-floor SLA commons. The Philadelphia School District shut the building to students on Oct. 1, and Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said he was surprised the $37 million project had run into asbestos problems.

“We were caught off guard,” Hite said.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The district’s own inspection reports, going back years, show that asbestos lined the air ducts running from the boiler room to the other parts of the building and had been flagged as a hazard.

Workers had been removing sections of damaged asbestos insulation on the ducts for years, the records show.

The blunder was one of several in a project marked by confusion and a lack of communication, records show.

The district and its outside environmental firms, for one, failed to provide a full picture of the asbestos hazards, as required by law. As a result, construction crews began dismantling the school’s old air ducts in the boiler room and first floor without adequate protections and spread carcinogenic asbestos fibers in those areas with students and staff in the building.

The district ignored early warnings from contractors, alarmed by the extent of the asbestos, and pushed an untenable deadline to complete the work by the start of the 2019-20 school year.

Contractors and the district also repeatedly failed to control the construction dust, a known asthma trigger.

The primary contractor on the job was Smith Construction, of Bensalem, which the district had hired for $15.4 million in June 2018 as “the lowest prequalified bidder.”

District officials gave Smith the contract two months after an Inquirer investigation, “Toxic City: Sick Schools,” disclosed that workers with Smith Construction, during a $5.3-million renovation at J. Hampton Moore Elementary School, repeatedly sent plumes of hazardous dust into the school, in violation of city dust-control laws. A company official said at the time, "We’re supposed to be controlling it.”

» READ MORE: Read more: Toxic City/Botched jobs

District officials recently declined to discuss its choice of Smith for the Ben Franklin renovations or say whether they had any discussions with Smith about its dust-control practices prior to the project’s start. “Our Inspector General office is investigating this matter,” a spokesperson said.

Trail of errors

An Inquirer review of hundreds of pages of district documents about the Ben Franklin construction project reveal a trail of errors by the district and its contractors. Here are some of them.

July 13, 2018: A subcontractor, hired by Smith to replace steam lines, uncovered pipe fittings that looked like they had asbestos insulation that would need to be removed. “Because of this, our schedule will be impacted pretty significantly,” Steve Henry of PT Mechanical Group wrote to the district’s project manager. Henry sought more “realistic timelines."

» READ MORE: Read more: Toxic City/Asbestos

Instead of making adjustments, district officials kept pushing forward, documents show.

Aug. 16, 2018: A project manager, hired by the district to oversee asbestos removal, caught abatement workers for Pepper Environmental Services improperly transporting bags of asbestos debris through the school.

Pepper Environmental had a spotty record with the district. The company was paid to do a massive lead-paint cleanup at more than two dozen elementary schools in late 2017 and early 2018. The “Toxic City” investigation showed that Pepper workers and district painters left a trail of toxic lead dust in classrooms. The district’s chief operating officer described Pepper’s work at the time as “completely unacceptable.”

Aug. 24, 2018: The first in a string of staffers’ concerns about demolition dust reach contractors and the district’s on-site project manager.

Sept. 6, 2018: Using a metal scraper, a Smith Construction worker broke up asbestos tiles in a hallway outside occupied classrooms and brushed the crumbled pieces into a dust pan, according to documents and a video obtained by The Inquirer.

Slipshod removal of tile at district schools has left behind millions of dangerous asbestos fibers in settled dust, The Inquirer’s 2018 investigation found.

After Ben Franklin staff complained that the crumbled tiles were removed without precautions, a trained abatement worker cleaned the area.

“I took some air samples while he did the work … and everything was fine,” said Gaeton Tavella, with Synertech, an environmental firm hired by the district to monitor the abatement work. "It wasn’t done intentionally.”

Documents show that Tavella tested the air using the Phase Contrast Microscopy method, or PCM. PCM, however, is too crude to detect the thinnest, shortest, most dangerous asbestos fibers.

May 2, 2019: Pepper Environmental neglected to have protective barriers to contain asbestos fibers during its abatement work, according to a daily activity report by a Synertech staffer. He also noted that dust and debris had been spread outside the unoccupied Room 400 work area. He told Pepper Environmental to fix the problems "first thing tomorrow morning,” his report shows.

Sept 12, 2019: At Back to School Night, Science Leadership Academy parents were startled to find only a thin plywood barrier separating the construction from the school’s first-floor commons. Students had already complained about dust, as had staff, unnerved by the recent disclosure that a Philadelphia teacher had contracted mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer caused by asbestos inhalation. Parents also registered their disapproval, saying the schools’ floors were covered with debris. Days later, district officials halted construction and later installed airtight barriers to contain dust.

Sept. 25, 2019: In a letter to parents, district officials announced that workers would continue working on the building’s boiler during the day and on its first floor in the evenings.

That same day, district and teachers’ union officials discovered damaged asbestos insulation, dust, and debris in the boiler room. They had workers evacuate the area.

The next day, they found more damaged asbestos in the duct insulation in the SLA commons, where unsuspecting workers had been doing duct work for weeks.

A critical misstep

How did this happen? How did a team of building experts — abatement crews, environmental authorities, heating and air-conditioning workers, project managers — miss such a central problem, one that forced the relocation of nearly 1,000 students?

Officials with Smith Construction, Pepper Environmental, Synertech, and PT Mechanical either declined to comment or didn’t return phone calls.

But an Inquirer analysis of the district’s own documents show an early, critical misstep.

Before any major construction, the district must identify all the asbestos that will be impacted by the renovations and either repair or remove it first. In spring 2018, the district hired G&C Environmental Services, of Newtown Square, to complete this task.

But the firm relied on a single, incomplete 2015-16 district environmental report that failed to note asbestos in Franklin’s air ducts — even though similar reports and maintenance logs going back to 2003 showed its presence. The G&C employee who wrote the report did not return calls for comment.

At a Thursday evening school board meeting, Hite promised the district would improve its environmental controls. “There is nothing we take more seriously than the health and safety of our students and staff. ... All of our children — no matter where they live or attend school — deserve safe and healthy learning environments.”