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Steam, asbestos close Pa. school

November 03, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - More than 600 middle school students in Mercersburg have missed classes since Monday, when James Buchanan Middle School's heating system broke down and spewed hot steam into parts of the 45-year-old building, creating an asbestos hazard in eight classrooms.

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Schools Superintendent William T. Konzal will explain the situation to parents at 6:30 p.m. today in the James Buchanan High School cafeteria. He expects the students to resume classes Friday in three separate facilities in the community.

Sixth-graders will attend classes at the new First United Methodist Church Faith and Fellowship Center. Seventh-graders will take classes at Mercersburg Academy and eighth-graders will go to James Buchanan High School. Bus transportation will be provided, as will school lunches, Konzal said.

It could be two weeks before the asbestos is removed from the school and students are allowed in the building, he said.

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The mishap, which is believed to have occurred early Monday, was discovered around 5:30 a.m. by employees of the company that delivers milk to the school, Konzal said. They called 911 and dispatchers there notified the school's maintenance personnel. Konzal said he was called to the school at 6 a.m.

The first thing he noticed upon entering the building were the translucent light diffusers in the ceilings of some classrooms. Some were bent, others had fallen to the floor. Some ceiling tiles were soggy, he said.

Further inspection showed that the vinyl floor tiles in some rooms had been hardened by the hot steam and bent out of shape. "Walking on them was like walking on corn flakes," Konzal said.

Once it was determined that the floor tiles contained asbestos, a Chambersburg, Pa., firm was called in to test the air in the building. At first officials thought they could isolate four second-story classrooms by encasing them in plastic sheeting and maintaining negative air pressure.

They thought they could still hold classes in the rest of the building but soon learned that the floor tiles in the rooms below had also been hardened by the steam.

"They crackled too," Konzal said. "We couldn't isolate eight rooms."

He said he found the temperatures in some of the affected classrooms were in the 90s long after the heating system had been shut down. "There was a tremendous flow of steam," he said.

The steam reached the second floor through the spaces around the pipes that feed steam to that part of the building, he said.

The carpeting and books in the school library were dampened, as were computers in a number of classrooms. Some computers were destroyed but many are expected to be usable again after they dry, Konzal said.

Articles taped to walls dropped to the floor after they were loosened by the steam.

Konzal estimated the damage at around $20,000, excluding the cost of removing the asbestos in the eight affected rooms.

Undamaged floors in the rest of the building will be left as is since there is no danger from asbestos as long as the tiles stay intact, he said.

Maintenance crews had to dig along the foundation in front of the school then drill through its concrete wall to find the cause of the steam leak, a damaged expansion joint. It will be replaced, Konzal said.

There are no plans to replace the other joints in the system, he said. "We can't get to all of them, so we're just going to go on for a while."

Konzal said the school needs a new heating system, which could cost as much as $225,000.

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