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School Environment Chief Resigns as Criticism Grows

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s environmental chief has abruptly resigned after weeks of mounting questions about the adequacy of his response to asbestos hazards discovered at several schools last fall.

School officials said Tuesday that Bill Panos, director of environmental health and safety for the district, resigned Monday, citing personal reasons.

Panos had come under increasing pressure for his failure to complete an investigation of construction workers’ release of potentially cancer-causing asbestos at a dozen schools.

Nearly five months after those mishaps, which caused the temporary closure of Palisades and Roosevelt high schools, Panos’ staff had yet to determine who was at fault. They also have not completed a review of possible asbestos hazards at hundreds of other schools.

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District officials acknowledge that if their inquiry had moved faster, they might have prevented two more asbestos emergencies this month that resulted in the closures of Chatsworth High School and Hammel Street Elementary School in East Los Angeles.

In each case, contractors cut into building materials that contained asbestos, potentially exposing students to particles that could become lodged in the lungs. State law and district policy require contractors to hire specialists whenever they encounter asbestos.

Last fall, district officials said they were investigating six contractors and would suspend those that failed to follow the law. They also launched a review of all past construction projects to prevent a recurrence and to determine whether students might have been exposed at other schools. There have been no suspensions, and the review is not yet complete.

School district officials said Tuesday that Angelo Bellomo, a consultant on the district’s environmental safety team, has been named interim director until a replacement can be hired this summer. Bellomo has been critical of Panos.

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Former Supt. Ruben Zacarias appointed the safety team as a watchdog group in response to past failures that resulted in a middle school being built on a toxic site.

Panos was the fourth director of environmental health and safety to resign or be fired during two years of turmoil in which the district has struggled to gain control of environmental problems that included the construction of the proposed Belmont Learning Complex on top of an abandoned oil field, and less well known instances in which safety equipment was not kept working.

Only days before his resignation, Panos said he was instituting major reforms, such as training for contractors and inspectors. He said the investigation to place blame for the breakdowns was nearing completion and promised that discipline would soon be imposed on those at fault.

“We don’t want to close any more schools or any more classrooms,” Panos said in a recent interview with The Times. Panos said he and the district’s new facilities head have issued a stern warning to all project managers on school repair work: “If you close a classroom, that is a death sentence for contractors.”

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Critics said the investigations should have been completed months ago and were poorly done.

“Unless you had gone back and exercised strict enforcement, this is going to continue to happen again,” Bellomo said. “You have to take swift enforcement against those who violate the law.

“Do we have assurances that kids are not walking into the site of past projects and are not being dangerously exposed?” Bellomo asked in a recent interview. “I think the answer would be no.”

Bellomo said he also was disturbed to learn that when asbestos releases were discovered at Chatsworth and Hammel, Panos’ staff did not test for airborne particles before cleaning up.

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The district learned at Palisades and Roosevelt that parents are greatly concerned about how much exposure their children might have had, Bellomo said. But because no testing was done before cleanup, the district had no evidence with which to estimate the exposure level.

Instead, Panos hired a consultant at UCLA to develop a risk assessment model based on calculations of the amount of asbestos that might have been released and the length of time before it was discovered. That model has not yet been made available.

Panos said he was basing his efforts to reform the environmental program on a risk analysis that he commissioned. It found the district’s asbestos management practices “inconsistent or lacking, with unclear, duplicative, inconsistent or contradictory procedures and documents, and unclear assignment of responsibilities.”

Aon Risk Services, which conducted the analysis, discovered that the district was working under two conflicting sets of rules on projects paid for by the $2.4-billion Proposition BB bond.

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One set of rules specifies that 3D/I-O’Brien Kreitzberg, the program manager for the thousands of Proposition BB projects, is responsible for oversight of hazardous materials abatement.

But the contract with 3D/I-O’Brien Kreitzberg provides that the program manager “shall not be responsible for any contractor’s implementation of or compliance with its safety programs.”

“Aon is forced to ask: Who is in charge of construction safety? How do they carry out the responsibility for asbestos activities?” the firm said in its report.

Panos said he was working on several fronts to fix the problems.

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His efforts included changing contracting specifications to replace small asbestos consultants with top-notch firms and holding mandatory workshops for all project managers.


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