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Asbestos Cover-up Alleged in MI Schools

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

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A federal lawsuit against a Michigan school district accuses the administration of covering up asbestos exposure at an elementary and high school in the Detroit area.

Theresa Ely, a former custodian at Dearborn Heights school district No. 7, filed the lawsuit Nov. 25. She contends that her former employer ordered her and others to use sanding equipment on asbestos-containing flooring without any personal protective gear.

She also claims the district engaged in falsifying an inspection report following the exposure and unlawfully ordered her to stop discussing the issue with staff and students who she thinks may have been exposed.

cracked tile
© iStock.com / hroe

The lawsuit alleges that school officials in Michigan instructed custodians to use abrasive sanding equipment to clean asbestos-containing tiles, without providing protective gear. 

Ely has not personally suffered any health problems as a result of the exposure, but she is undergoing monitoring, according to reports.

In the lawsuit, she is seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

White Dust

The lawsuit says that in the summer of 2011, Ely and another custodian were instructed to clean asbestos-laden floor tiles at the Annapolis High School and Madison Elementary School using abrasive sandpaper, rather than hydroforce.

She had been originally instructed to use water, but the project’s tight timeline was a factor, according to the lawsuit.

Ely claims that white dust generated from the project “envelop[ed] the entire hallway” of the high school and covered  the workers, who were not offered or wearing any protective gear. She said the white dust got into her mouth and eyes.

The schools were open for summer classes, so children, parents, staff and others may also have been exposed to the asbestos-laden dust, she said.

In January 2013, the suit says, a former employee at the school died of mesothelioma (an asbestos-related disease).

According to the lawsuit, the employee’s family reported that the district had “sanded the asbestos tiles for years.”

Alleged Forgery

In April 2013, then-Superintendent Jeffrey Bartold told staff that the school had sent samples for inspection and testing and that they had come back negative, the lawsuit claims.

asbestos removal
©iStock.com / bermau

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has an asbestos program to ensure that the people working with asbestos are trained and that individuals removing asbestos comply with rules governing work activity.

Ely maintains that she was given a copy of the inspection report, allegedly issued by D&D Consulting. However, the report was “suspicious,” the lawsuit says. Specifically, the report:

  • Was not signed by the inspector;
  • Was not dated;
  • Included a reference to fire damage (which Ely says was not present at the school at the time); and
  • Referenced a “home” instead of a school.

Moreover, inspector Don Clayton was said to have performed the testing and reporting. However, he was retired at the time and denies participating in preparing the report, the lawsuit adds.

Ely accuses district officials of fabricating the report.

Regulators Get Involved

Ely then reported the possible exposure to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In May 2013, the suit says, Ely was fired and received a letter from the administration ordering her to stop talking about the possible exposure.

Later that month, MIOSH reported that the district had violated workplace-safety standards regarding asbestos, the lawsuit says.

The suit said the violations related to sanding the floors and alleged:

  • Failure to adequately train staff in regard to asbestos safety;
  • Failure to provide appropriate personal protection equipment; and
  • Improper disposal of asbestos material.

MIOSHA also allegedly recommended medical surveillance for individuals exposed or potentially exposed to the asbestos dust, the lawsuit says.

© iStock.com / woyzzeck

The former employee claims the school sent her a compliance report that was fraudently prepared.

A review of OSHA’s database on Tuesday (Dec. 2) shows two cases involving the Michigan schools. The database includes two serious asbestos violations (one for each of the schools) carrying initial penalty fines totalling $27,000. The fines were reduced to $3,600 through informal settlement.


This fall, Ely claims she received another written reprimand from current superintendent Todd Thieken, accusing her of “misconduct, false statements, absenteeism, and creating an unfriendly work environment and insubordination.”

Ely's suit says the two district letters amount to “gag orders” to cease public disclosure of vital public information and violate her First Amendment right to free speech.

District Responds

In a response to media requests for comment, the district has said it considers the health, safety and well-being of its students its number-one concern.

The district said it “employs multiple third-party environmental companies to ensure the District meets and exceeds the safety standards for schools set by both the State and Federal government.”

The district also said that while MIOSHA found violations of proper procedure and protocol, it did not reveal any asbestos-containing debris.

The school declined to comment on the allegations of falsified reports, citing the pending lawsuit.


Tagged categories: Asbestos; Building materials; Education; Health and safety; Sanding and hand tool cleaning; Schools

Comment from john lienert, (12/3/2014, 9:33 AM)

some school employee must have been a politician before getting into school administration

Comment from M. Halliwell, (12/3/2014, 11:12 AM)

Mesothelioma is an illness only associated with asbestos exposure and that report sounds fishier than a tuna sandwich. If it all bears out in court, I hope the judge hits them fairly hard and leaves the door open for all the students that have been potentially exposed to follow (law)suit. I'm sorry, but if it comes out that someone intentionally disregarded the asbestos and tried to cover it up afterwards, then I think manslaughter charges would be appropriate. I'm also glad that's a stock photo of the workers with the floor tile...those are some really flimsy looking disposable P100/HEPA respirators. Not the type of thing that I would use or send my workers with for an sampling / abatement job.

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