Topeka An audit of state prisons has found asbestos at buildings throughout the system, prompting remediation work at two facilities. Critics say the state’s response to the findings has been inadequate.
The Kansas Department of Corrections spent $170,000 to assess pipe insulation, ceiling material, floor tile and other products likely to contain asbestos at the prisons after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criticized the state’s handling of a past asbestos removal.
Bill Miskell, spokesman for corrections department, said the state allocated $75,000 for work on pipe wrapping and ceiling tile at the Lansing and Winfield prisons.
The state isn’t required to immediately begin eliminating asbestos found in other prisons, Miskell said, adding that the audit will help the department properly manage asbestos contamination during future demolitions or renovations.
That response was criticized by a Kansas labor union official representing state corrections officers and a lawyer from Alma who prompted a federal investigation of suspected improper handling of asbestos at Topeka Correctional Facility.
Exposure to microscopic particles of asbestos poses potentially lethal health risks.
“Why wait until something bad happens and someone is exposed?” said Jane Carter, executive director of the 10,000-member Kansas Organization of State Employees.
The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that an audit was conducted at prisons in El Dorado, Ellsworth, Hutchinson, Larned, Norton, Stockton, Wichita, Lansing, Winfield and Topeka.
“We want to ensure that any KDOC renovation or repair project is done in a safe and appropriate manner and that the one project found by the EPA to be inappropriately done remains an isolated event,” Miskell said.
In March, the EPA said state prison officials violated federal law during work on asbestos-tainted flooring in a dormitory at the Topeka prison. Untrained and ill-equipped prisoners and staff used equipment to pulverize the flooring for disposal.
The latest audit report obtained by the Capital-Journal indicate asbestos-tainted material was found in dozens of locations in state prison buildings. The only prisons where asbestos contamination was not found were in Ellsworth and El Dorado.
Carter said the state should develop a comprehensive plan for ridding correctional institutions of asbestos.
“Why not remove it now?” Carter said. “They’re putting inmates and staff at risk, but also the public.”
Miskell said government regulations do not require the department to immediately address asbestos that does not pose an immediate health threat.
Lawyer Keen Umbehr, who pushed for an investigation of asbestos contamination at the Topeka prison for women in 2009, which eventually led to the EPA report, said repairs at Lansing and Winfield suggested the state had determined both facilities were not complying with state and federal laws.