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Parents protest delays asbestos removal at elementary school

Parents in Leonia, N.J., have forced officials to delay asbestos removal at a local elementary school after accusing the Board of Education of attempting to cover up the safety risks.

School officials made the decision to begin removing asbestos-containing material at the Anna C. Scott Elementary School over a weekend before school was dismissed for the summer, according to a report by

Parents found out about the project and sent dozens of angry emails complaining that they were not notified that the work would begin while school was still in session. The district has agreed to postpone the abatement until later in the summer.

Anna C. Scott Elementary School was built in the 1980s and, like schools across the country, contains such as ceiling and floor tiles that were manufactured with asbestos.

A federal law, the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, or AHERA, requires public school districts and non-profit private schools to inspect for asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends "in-place" management of intact asbestos-containing materials, which can release toxic fibers when damaged or disturbed, creating a hazard. Inhaling even small amounts of asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a deadly disease of the lung lining, and other respiratory illnesses.

Leonia Public Schools Superintendent Bernard Josefsberg met with parents this week at two informational meetings. Josefsberg acknowledged he should have told parents and school officials about the abatement project before it began. But he insisted students, teachers and school staff were never at risk, according to

“The truth is, asbestos abatement is a common occurrence in New Jersey, and of several schools we called, some did send a letter, some did not,” Josefsberg told parents.

Gary Albanese, a parent, told he wished Josefsberg had met with parents a month ago. “They answered a lot of questions, I just wish they would have done this sooner,” Albanese said. “Anytime you hear the word asbestos, it sets off alarm bells.”

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection says the school, which scheduled the abatement for May 15 as part of a capital project, broke no state and federal environmental laws. Scott Higgins, a consultant monitoring the abatement work, told that asbestos removal during the school year was neither unusual nor dangerous.

“New Jersey has some of the most stringent asbestos regulations in the country,” he said. “We reviewed all the air testing results, and did the same tests we would have done if it was over the summer.”

In a letter to parents, Josefsberg said, “I offer the postponement not to concede, appease or atone.... I am postponing the work so that we can begin again as a whole school community — one that stands apart from any other divisions or interests that may exist in the wider community.”

The superintendent said the postponement would cost the school district an additional $150,000 to $200,000, and he warned that the project may not be completed before the start of the 2010-11 school year. A construction safety committee that includes teachers and administrators will monitor the work and keep parents informed.