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Kilgore College employees break silence about asbestos

By Bridget Ortigo
April 6, 2015 at 11:58 p.m.

People enter an unlocked door to Dodson Auditorium at Kilgore College on Friday November 21, 2014. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Four Kilgore College employees — three current and one former — have come forward to document decades of asbestos mishandling and illegal hazardous waste dumping at the college.

"The truth has to come out," said David Roberts, who's worked in maintenance at the college for 27 years. "If it's not brought forth, it will never stop. I've prayed about this, and it's been on my conscience. I love my job, and I'm not trying to make the college look bad, and I'm not trying to point fingers, but someone has got to try to get this to stop."

Roberts and two other employees, including Physical Plant Coordinator Dalton Smith, recently signed affidavits documenting improper actions and suggesting college administrators ordered them.

The third affidavit was signed by a college maintenance worker who declined to comment.

The three employees' statements have been sent to the Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The TCEQ declined comment. But Roberts said TCEQ Environmental Investigator Bill O'Sullivan told him the affidavits had been received.

State health department spokesman Chris Van Deusen previously said if the department received such sworn statements, it would investigate them as a new case into allegations about environmental issues at Kilgore College.

The affidavits come to light after state investigators last month closed investigations into safety on campus, citing the lack of sworn statements from employees about their allegations. Smith said this past week he had been waiting on instructions from the TCEQ about preparing an affidavit, but O'Sullivan never provided him with the documents.

"I didn't know that they still needed me to sign an affidavit until I saw the (news) report that they had closed their investigation and that I hadn't signed an affidavit," Smith said. "I had already given recorded statements to them and college administrators. I didn't know they still needed anything else."

O'Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment.

College President Bill Holda said Monday he had not read the affidavits in detail, but did not believe the allegations in them.

"No one to date has brought forth any evidence that these things are true," Holda said. "Just because you put things down in writing doesn't make them true, even if multiple people say them."

But he admitted that recently retired maintenance worker Rick Murphy told him in the fall that he had buried materials under mechanical equipment on campus, as was previously asserted by the employees.

"He did not identify to me that those materials were asbestos," Holda said.

College spokesman Chris Craddock said in November that Murphy had performed "small abatements" around campus despite not being licensed to do so.

"He never told me those were asbestos abatements," Craddock said Monday.

'Didn't do their job'

Smith said when the college released letters from the state agencies about closing their investigations and denied any wrongdoing, he decided he couldn't let it go.

"The reason I came forward was due to the increasing frequency of these happenings and the high amount of people being exposed," Smith said. "I was ready to let it go and let them fix it. Then they attacked me publicly, called me a liar and said they were exonerated just because (health department investigator) Cecil Fambrough and Bill O'Sullivan didn't want to investigate it. They didn't do their job, and they didn't protect the public."

Smith said he also wanted documentation in case he, other workers, students or the public became ill and needed medical care.

"I never expected people would react this way," he said. "I especially figured the parents of the Rangerettes would care. Is there not one parent out there that cared? The reaction reminds me of a drowning victim. You try to help someone who's drowning, but they end up trying to pull you down with them."

Earlier efforts

Smith said it's not the first time he's been surprised at the lack of concern for safety. Before going public in a series of News-Journal stories last year, Smith said he took his concerns up the college's chain of command.

"I went to several administrators first," he said, naming Human Resources Director Tony Johnson, Vice President of Student Development Mike Jenkins and Director of Special Projects and Liaison to the Board Dan Beach.

Smith said he also went to an executive vice president who referred him to college President Holda or a board member.

"Since I knew Holda already knew what was going on from Beach, which I have on a recording, I chose to go to a board member, and I chose the preacher," he said of trustee Brian Nutt, who is pastor of a Kilgore church. "I chose a man of God."

Roberts said he also was reluctant to come forward out of concern for causing controversy.

"I didn't want to get involved, but if someone doesn't step forward, this will continue until someone gets hurt," he said. "I can't live with that."

'Do it or ... '

In his 27 years at the college, Robert said he has worked under four maintenance supervisors, including Smith.

"We (worked with and around asbestos) any time we had equipment failure," Roberts said. "Dan Beach and (Vice president of Administrative Services) Duane McNaney would tell us, 'You'll do it or we'll find someone else.'"

Roberts said he had buried asbestos on campus under instructions from his supervisors.

According to his signed affidavit, "Asbestos has been removed by me on Kilgore College property at the L.A. (former Martha Pfaff Ivan Liberal Arts) building ... Rangerette Gym" and other sites.

Under state law, any handling of asbestos must be done by a licensed worker. No Kilgore College employee is licensed.

"I was told to remove asbestos on a boiler in the L.A. building between 1990 and 1999 by Leon Dodgen," Roberts wrote in his affidavit. "Also, between the Old Main building, there was a cooling tower that had asbestos paneling on it. When we tore it down, it was hauled to Leon Dodgen's farm."

Dodgen, now retired, owns property on the outskirts of Kilgore. He has declined to discuss the allegations with the News-Journal.

Buried on campus

Roberts also describes burying hazardous materials at the college's Firing and Driving Range, an allegation Smith first made in November.

A TCEQ investigation cited the college for improper dumping at the range but did not test the materials found. The college was told to clean up the dump.

Roberts said he buried asbestos under two chillers on the east campus and that he removed asbestos off a water line under the Rangerette Gym in 2014. Smith and Roberts said Mosby Mechanical was sent to repair a leak under the gym but demanded an asbestos abatement be completed on the area before working on it.

"Dan Beach told Dalton Smith that Kilgore College was not going to spend that kind of money and to get the plumber (the other employee who signed an affidavit) and myself to fix it," Roberts said.

Smith and Roberts also said bulbs containing mercury, ballast, capacitors and transformers have been improperly disposed of on campus.

The recordings

In his seven-page affidavit, Smith swears to the authenticity of recordings he made public in November of college maintenance workers Murphy, Terry Huckaby and Perry Myers discussing illegal removal of asbestos on campus. There are also recordings of Beach discussing the cover-up of the improper actions and his plans to keep the information from the public. Murphy retired from the college in March.

Smith also outlines in his affidavit specific instances in which he believes college workers, students, staff and the general public were put in jeopardy by the college's "reckless" actions.

"I have personally witnessed the removal and disposal of what I was told by my superiors, co-workers and outside contractors were asbestos containing materials," Smith wrote. "These abatements were performed by unlicensed, untrained employees of Kilgore College."

Some of the people he names have admitted their actions to Smith or other college administrators.

"But all have confided in me that they have seen or have participated in actual abatements, or I have witnessed them participate in the removal myself," Smith wrote.

He also writes that he was instructed by Beach to dispose of bulbs, waste paint, oil drums, pesticide drums, batteries and other materials to "avoid paying recycle/disposal fees before the Peer Audit performed by HRP Associates."

The Peer Audit Review was conducted in 2014, and the results of the review have yet to be made public. The News-Journal has filed a request for the report under state open records law.

Rangerettes exposure

Smith also detailed an improper asbestos abatement at Dodson Auditorium during Rangerette Revels this past spring. He said he asked Beach to have a company perform a legal abatement and was denied.

"Beach called a meeting with other administrators outside, in front of Dodson," Smith said. "Shelly Wayne (Kilgore College Rangerettes assistant director), Trey Hattaway (director of marketing and enrollment management), Jenkins, Beach and myself attended. They discussed options, and Jenkins, Beach and Hattaway voted to expose the public to asbestos and to perform an in-house abatement. Beach told me McNaney had agreed by phone."

He said Rangerettes, college employees and the general public were allowed into the building that day.

Holda said Monday he did not accept that account simply because he believes the word of Beach over that of Smith.

The other employees involved in the vote Smith alleged were not available for comment Monday, but Holda said he could speak for the administrators that no such vote took place.

"Mike Jenkins was there, and he said there was no vote," Holda said.

Holda said the group was gathered for the meeting in front of Dodson that day to discuss options. He said the group decided to have Murphy handle removal of the material because it was not positively identified as asbestos.

Air quality tests performed later showed no airborne asbestos, a finding Smith said was no surprise.

"Of course there wasn't anything left in the air eight months later," he said Friday. "When you start a fire, is there still going to be smoke eight months later? The air is probably fine now, where they've done all these abatements, but the point is they probably weren't safe when the abatements were done, and we'll never know because we didn't do them properly or perform air tests."

In his affidavit, Smith said a similar improper abatement occurred during renovations last summer of the college's new health sciences building, which is housed in the old Laird Memorial Hospital.

In that case, he said he was ordered by Beach to "sneak into the hospital before construction workers arrived" to remove asbestos, potentially exposing patients and construction workers.

Workers renovating the Engineering and Science building also were exposed while sanding down large science lab tables that consist of identified asbestos-containing materials, he wrote.

"The HVAC system was operational at this time and all workers, contractors, subcontractors and staff in the building were exposed to asbestos and need to be notified so they can take health precautions," Smith said.

The former employee

Former Kilgore College maintenance worker James Buckley said he's been waiting for years to come clean about what he witnessed while working in maintenance and attending classes at Kilgore College in 2009.

"I've kept these documents and photos for six years, just hoping someone else would come forward about the things that were going on," he said Thursday of witnessing and photographing what he said was friable asbestos in the ventilation system at the former Ivan Pfaff Liberal Arts Building. "We couldn't report anything at the time, because we were told not to make waves or we would have our jobs contracted out or be outsourced if we did."

Buckley, who now works as a safety instructor in East Texas, said during his time working for the college, he was tasked with replacing every air filter on campus.

He said he became concerned upon entering the mechanical rooms of the liberal arts building and seeing exposed asbestos and filters badly in need of service.

"During that time, the college's TRIO and ESL students used the facility," Buckley said. "Some of the air units didn't even have filters in them, and the ones that did hadn't been changed in a couple of years. There was also asbestos all inside the intake area, just sitting there, able to get sucked into the system and circulated throughout the building. There was big chunks of asbestos that had fallen off of the pipe nearby that were laying by the intake."

Buckley reported his concerns to his supervisors who told him not to worry about it, he said. When he went back later to see what had been done, he said, "they hadn't done anything."

Roberts said he feels guilt for taking part in such activities and putting students, staff and others at risk. But he said he was just following instructions.

"There are a lot of taxpayers that need to know the truth," he said.

"I don't know how much life I have left, but I know I have eternal life through Jesus. I can't sit here and not say anything anymore."

Roberts acknowledged he was reluctant to come forward after seeing how Smith was treated after going public.

"I told my supervisors everything I did, and the investigators, but I didn't sign the affidavit because I had seen how they did Dalton," Roberts said.

His affidavit was sworn Thursday.

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