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Following critical EPA report, Kansas begins asbestos removal from prisons


The Kansas Department of Corrections has begun removing asbestos from two state prisons following an audit that found inmates and employees may have been exposed to the dangerous substance, which causes mesothelioma, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses.


The Topeka Capital Journal reports that the KDOC has allocated $75,000 to remove pipe wrapping and ceiling tile at the Lansing and Winfield prisons. Asbestos abatement may also be necessary at dozens of other corrections facilities in the state based on a system-wide audit launched after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticized the prison department's past mishandling of asbestos removal.


"Asbestos-containing materials were found in various buildings at DOC facilities," Bill Miskell, a spokesman for the corrections department, told the Capital Journal.


Miskell said the KDOC's review will help the department properly manage asbestos found during future renovation or demolition projects, but that government regulations don't currently require immediate abatement at other facilities.


A labor union official representing Kansas corrections officers told the paper that the limited cleanup could put workers at risk.


"Why wait until something bad happens and someone is exposed?" said Jane Carter, executive director of the 10,000-member Kansas Organization of State Employees.


The EPA's report, issued in March, said KDOC officials violated the federal Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act while removing asbestos-tainted flooring at Topeka Correctional Facility, which houses 500 female inmates and employs more than 200 people.


The EPA said that untrained prisoners and staff members demolished the flooring with heavy equipment before testing the area for asbestos as required by law. The agency also found that the workers were not provided proper respiratory protection, also required by law, and were not adequately supervised.


Federal inspectors also turned up asbestos in flooring, ceilings, walls, pipe joints, vinyl sheeting and insulation at prisons in Hutchison, Larned, Stockton and Wichita.


The attorney who prompted the EPA investigation said the repairs ordered at Lansing and Winfield justified an inquiry of past asbestos projects to determine the scope of improper abatement practices.


Keen Umbehr had sought an investigation by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment of asbestos contamination at the Topeka prison. The case was turned over to the EPA, which led to the finding against the state.


"It doesn't matter whether it is prisoners, correction officers or other workers performing the job of removing asbestos," Umbehr said. "There is no 'safe' level of asbestos exposure."