OC Housing Plaster Crumbles
One afternoon last September, College juniors Kyle DeMars-Johnson and Sean Bernfeld returned to their Village house on 195 N. Professor St. to a surprising sight. “One quarter of the living room ceiling had fallen in, and there was a lot of dust and plaster all over the floor,” recalled DeMars-Johnson. “We took a broom and dustpan and swept up what was on the floor, cleared the damage and called Facilities.”
Director of Facilities Keith Watkins confirmed, “[The students] called. We came out, we addressed the situation. The area was cleaned and patched, made safe.” However, when the results from testing came back, the textured paint on the ceiling was found to contain asbestos.
Demars-Johnson, along with Bernfeld and their other housemates, juniors Adrian Oei of the College and Yong Tak of the Conservatory, was quickly informed of the situation by Residential Education. “Immediately when they got that result back they sent us all e-mails. We could not go inside. I mean, it was common sense not to go inside at that point, but it left us in kind of a fix because all we had outside the house were clothes on our bodies and our backpacks,” said DeMars-Johnson.
At that point, Facilities’ biggest worry was not the asbestos, but letting the students in to retrieve their belongings. “The initial concern was plaster falling, which was why [the students] were initially relocated and not allowed to be back in the house,” said Watkins. After the ceiling was patched, “it was deemed safe to go in the house; any release that might have taken place was insignificant or minor. That [judgment] was from the consultants, from the people doing the testing and from Oberlin College individuals who have had experience dealing with these kinds of scenarios.”
ResEd, meanwhile, found emergency singles for the students. Less than a week later, ResEd and Facilities scheduled a meeting with the students at the N. Professor St. house to allow them to remove their belongings.
DeMars-Johnson remembered, “In that meeting they handed us a copy of the report with the testing from the texturing of the ceiling in the living room that showed that it was positive for asbestos. They told us that this contracting crew had been in there and patched the hole in the ceiling and it was sealed. And they told us that it was safe to go inside and to pack up and move out our belongings.”
The students and their parents were skeptical. “With the level of testing they’d actually done that was absolutely incorrect, it wasn’t safe to go inside,” said DeMars-Johnson. “They’d only tested the texturing in the ceiling, they did not test the air or any other surfaces in the house to see if [the asbestos] had gone elsewhere. So it was a horribly incompetent thing to tell us.”
Over the next two months the students and their parents and Facilities wrangled over the proper amount of testing. DeMars-Johnson described Facilities and ResEd as “extremely resistant to doing any further testing.”
However, Watkins asserted, “We followed what the consultants and the regulatory agencies were telling us we needed to do. The students and the parents voiced stronger concerns and halted the process. They wanted additional testing done that fell outside of what was being deemed appropriate. Oberlin College once again put a halt on everything and went the extra couple of steps — the extra couple of processes — and got the testing done.”
A month later the tests had been completed to the students and their parents’ satisfaction, and the students were given the green light to return to the house and pack up all their things.
For another month the house underwent extensive repairs. Watkins described the College’s efforts: “We pulled down all the old plaster, we tested all the plaster in the house, core samples, air samples, everything else. Every place that there was any potential for asbestos in the textured surface or there was any possibility that plaster would let loose from its original application in full, everything was pulled off. Sometimes plaster was pulled off because as we were remediating the areas that were unsafe, it caused damage to areas that were safe. So we pretty much ripped out all the plaster everywhere. Once that was all torn down then we had to put it all back together.”
Still more testing of the house had to be done before finally, two weeks before finals, the students were able to move back into their house.
Watkins described the process: “There was constant communication between Oberlin College, the students, the parents that were involved, regulatory agencies and consultants. It was a constant process over a long period of time. There were delays, absolutely, some of them waiting for test results, some of those based on additional reports that were requested by the students and or parents, additional test results — all of those led to quite a long period of time.”