Obfuscation of Long-Term Asbestos Issues at Texas College; Issues with Governance Exposed

Kilgore College is a community college in rural East Texas. For most of its history, the college has been recognized, if at all, for one of three things. First, it is now the site of the East Texas Oil Museum. Kilgore had been incorporated in the early 1870s, and for the first half-century of its existence, the town had been an agricultural center for the region’s cotton growers. In the 1920s, however, when cotton prices collapsed, much of the region’s African-American population joined the Great Migration, and Kilgore looked as if its best days were quickly receding. Then, large oil fields were discovered under the cotton fields, and the town became the center of the great east Texas oil boom—thus, the museum. Second, Kilgore College is noted for the Kilgore Rangerettes, the first precision dance team in the world. Established in 1940, the Rangerettes have performed at the half-times of many college football bowl games and Dallas Cowboy games, and they have been showcased at many other kinds of events. Lastly, Kilgore College’s most notable alumni have included the pianist Van Cliburn and professional football player Lyle Alzado.

Alzado was an undersized defensive lineman whose ferocious play carried him through 15 NFL seasons, during which he was named to the All-Pro team three times. In 1984, he was a member of the Oakland Raiders team that won Super Bowl XVIII. Sometime after his playing career was over, Alazado was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He then became one of the first professional athletes to admit that he had used anabolic steroids throughout much of his playing career. This admission severely damaged his legacy because it seemed to explain how he was able to sustain such a ferocious style of play over such an extended career. So, the public admission of his use of the drugs was a courageous thing for Alazado to do, and it was not the first time that he had demonstrated such courage. While he was a member of the Kilgore College football team, he himself recalled, he was asked to leave the team and school because he had become close friends with an African-American teammate.

In any case, over its history, the Kilgore College football team has accumulated more wins than any other junior college team in Texas–quite a remarkable record given the emphasis on football in Texas.

Given this background, you can see, however, why it would be very surprising that this community college that enrolls about 5,000 students would receive any sort of national attention. But it has—for a scandal involving asbestos removal and an attempted cover-up of the botched clean-up.

Apparently, most of the buildings on the campus have had issues with asbestos. I am getting most of the information in this post from an article written by Bridget Ortigo for the News-Journal in Longview, Texas. The full article, “Recordings: Kilgore College Official Broke Asbestos Laws, Covered It Up,” is available at http://www.news-journal.com/news/local/recordings-kilgore-college-official-broke-asbestos-laws-covered-it-up/article_38d765c9-6264-58ab-a4c1-dcb0b02e828e.html.

Ortigo notes that, over the “past few years,” asbestos removal was done improperly or incompletely in “the Randolph C. Watson Library, Rangerette gym, Stark Hall and Quads dormitories and Dodson Auditorium.” But somewhat later, she adds that, over this past year, regulations for asbestos abatement were not followed in the renovation of “the old Laird Memorial Hospital, which . . . now houses its Health and Sciences Department.” And when the college official who has become the focal point in the investigation was asked in a clandestinely recorded conversation how many people might have been affected by the asbestos, he is said to have blithely answered, “’Well, print a list of every student that’s been here for the last 30 years.’”

That remark was reportedly made by Dan Beach, Kilgore College’s Director of Special Projects and Liaison to the Board of Trustees. It was recorded by Dalton Smith, the Facilities Director at the college, who became a whistleblower. In the excerpts from the tapes that Smith recorded of his conversations with Beach, Smith admits that he had become concerned that a relatively large number of other employees, many of them maintenance workers whom he supervises, had become involved in the improper removal of the asbestos and that it was unlikely that all of them could be relied upon or coerced to remain silent. Moreover, he worries out loud that his supervisory position would insure that his even passive complicity in covering up the problems could result in a substantial prison sentence.

There is no indication in Ortigo’s article of why Beach should have been so centrally involved in covering up the problems with the asbestos removal—or, for that matter, why the problems have not been addressed at any point in a much more thorough and more appropriate way.

Instead, the spotty remediation of the problems and the manipulation of reports to suggest that the remediation had been done more responsibly seem to have devolved into some sort of bureaucratic game in which Beach felt that his only real concern was isolating and suppressing any uneasiness that might surface among the members of the Board of Trustees.

But, at least one member of the Board of Trustees seems to have become outspoken about the seeming lack of clarity and transparency in the college’s documentation of its asbestos abatement. It is not clear from Ortigo’s article whether that trustee, Carlos “Scooter” Griffin, Jr., had been alerted to the problems by Smith or whether Smith had been moved to become a whistleblower by Griffin’s persistence in pursuing information.

The tapes make it clear, however, that Beach felt that he could silence Griffin simply by persuading the other trustees that Griffin was pursuing some sort of skewed personal agenda. In one of the recordings, Beach reportedly says to Smith: “’ “So let me handle Scooter, and the way I’m doing that is that he’s going to get voted down on everything at the board level, and the only other thing that he can try to do is to go to the district attorney, which he can’t do cause he’s on the board. . . . No one except Scooter is trying to do anything, so this is a lot of noise that’s going nowhere.’”

Apparently, this strategy had worked for about six months–until Smith went public with his accusations and recordings.

Since then, the college administration and the board of trustees seem to have remained largely silent about the whole matter, but they have been uniformly silent about the government investigations that have reportedly been initiated in response to Smith’s recordings of his conversations with Beach.

Those who have spoken out all on behalf of the college administration and the Board of Trustees have insisted that Beach was essentially just inflating his own significance in grossly exaggerating the level of his influence over the Board of Trustees and the matters that the Board has addressed. In a short-sighted way, this strategy makes some sense: it asserts that the Board of Trustees was not being manipulated by anyone, let alone someone stupid enough to be recorded while making such damaging statements about his own and others’ irresponsible actions in response to a major issue at the college.

But, if one steps back at all from this defense, it begs the question of why only Griffin was interested in addressing what has obviously been a long-term issue at the college—and one with major health implications for everyone who has been employed at or enrolled at the college, over decades. Indeed, given that symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers might not become evident until twenty to forty years after the exposure to asbestos, this is a long-term health and legal issue with potentially catastrophic consequences for any individual who became knowingly or unknowingly afflicted and a long-term fiscal and legal issue for the college.

Indeed, I would assert that it is, above all else, a moral issue, but there is little indication that anyone involved, except Griffin, has been concerned primarily about morality.

Before he died, Lyle Alzado came to the conclusion that he had essentially killed himself to increase the length of his career in professional football. One wonders when the leaders of this college will admit that they allowed a significant risk to public health to go unaddressed either to forestall the cost in addressing it properly or simply to avoid having to explain why they had already allowed it to go unaddressed for so long. Or, if I seem to be putting words in their mouths in offering these explanations and if they wish to place the blame entirely on Beach, perhaps they can then explain why they were so oblivious to the irresponsible actions of someone who seems so obviously to have been something of a loose cannon.

 

3 thoughts on “Obfuscation of Long-Term Asbestos Issues at Texas College; Issues with Governance Exposed

  1. Pingback: The Asbestos Controversy at Kilgore College: A Follow-Up on the Cover-Up, Contention, and Attempted Intimidation by Gunfire | The Academe Blog

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