BOISE, Idaho — The Environmental Protection Agency says Idaho inmates were exposed to asbestos when they were sent to work at an Idaho Transportation Department maintenance shop without proper training or equipment.
The federal agency announced Tuesday that the Idaho Transportation Department has agreed to pay nearly $56,000 to settle the allegations. Though the transportation agency agreed to pay the penalty, it didn't admit or deny the allegations.
ITD spokesman Reed Hollinshead wrote in an email that the state agency shares the EPA's concern regarding the health risks posed by asbestos, and the agency didn't become aware that the asbestos was present until after the inmate's work was completed.
The EPA says the transportation department hired inmates from the St. Anthony Work Camp in eastern Idaho last year to remove old flooring from an ITD building in Rigby. But the EPA says the department didn't test for asbestos first, instead relying on a 25-year-old test of a single sample taken in the building in 1989. That sample didn't show asbestos, but repeat tests done after an inmate and a correctional supervisor complained showed that the glue in the flooring contained asbestos and asbestos dust was on the walls. The federal agency says at least three recent samples should have been tested before the work began.
John Pavitt, an air compliance inspector for the EPA region that includes Idaho, said the federal agency discovered the problem when the correctional officer in charge of the inmate work crew contacted him last year.
"He told me that they had been on a job site in April 2013, and things had gone wrong on the job. They were worried that they were exposed to asbestos dust," Pavitt said. "Nobody had training, nobody had respirators, and the normal controls weren't used."
The job was to remove tile and tile glue from the floor of a breakroom in an ITD maintenance shop as part of a renovation, Pavitt said. The correctional officer and an inmate both suspected that there was asbestos in the materials, Pavitt said, but an ITD official assured them the material was asbestos-free. The correctional officer was still wary, though, and saved a piece of the material so he could have it tested later.
The inmate crew used a mechanical buffer and other tools to chip away the tile and remove the glue from the subfloor, Pavit said, and then they dumped the old tile in a community trash bin. From there it was carted to a landfill that wasn't supposed to accept asbestos, he said.
The correctional officer sent his sample off for private testing, and when it came back positive for asbestos, contacted state health officials for help, Pavitt said. Those officials referred him to the EPA, but because of sequestration and the government shutdown during the summer of 2013, the investigation process was slow.
In November — months after the two-day demolition job in April was complete — Pavitt contacted the Idaho Transportation Department, which hired an independent consultant to examine the breakroom. Asbestos dust was on the walls, and a sample of the tile glue found under a baseboard was positive for asbestos, Pavitt said.
"This is why the case rose to the top for me. This was not some isolated place where nobody goes — it's a public space, where workers would sit and have a meal or a cup of coffee," Pavitt said. "... There were mistakes in every step of the process."
Asbestos can cause lung cancer and other health problems, but those often occur years after exposure. There's no known safe level of exposure, Pavitt said.
"It was only after the shop was renovated that IDT became aware of the issue, and the department took every appropriate step to address the concerns, including vacating the work area and bringing in a professional crew to clean up the asbestos contamination," Hollinshead, the ITD spokesman, wrote. "The Idaho Transportation Department is committed to public safety, and the department will take every possible measure moving forward to ensure that safety."
Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray said the inmates were referred to the department's health care provider following the incident.