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Asbestos Allegations Stir Controversy in Kilgore

Tensions at the nearly 80-year-old Kilgore College have reached new — and possibly violent — heights amid allegations that the school was in the habit of improperly removing and disposing of asbestos from its buildings.

A pipe at Kilgore College, where allegations of improper asbestos removal and disposal have sparked controversy.

There is no doubt in Brian Nutt’s mind that the bullet that ripped through the front door of his home on the Monday before Thanksgiving had something to do with his position at Kilgore College.

“I don’t believe in randomness in this situation,” he said this week. “I think it’s directly related to me being a trustee.”

Since he was elected to the college’s board last year, Nutt, the senior pastor of Grace Fellowship of Kilgore, has developed a reputation for aggressively questioning the status quo on issues, like how the college adheres to the state’s open meetings rules.

But tensions at the nearly 80-year-old community college reached new heights in mid-November when allegations surfaced that the school was in the habit of improperly removing and disposing of asbestos from its buildings.

The accusations came from inside the college. Dalton Smith, the school’s facilities director, told Bridget Ortigo of the Longview News-Journal that the school had knowingly mishandled asbestos on multiple occasions. To back up his account, he produced recordings that he said he secretly made of fellow employees discussing the matter.

Less than 24 hours after portions of those recordings ran on the News-Journal’s website, along with comments from Nutt encouraging an investigation into the matter, the trustee’s home was fired upon. Police have not determined a motive for the shot fired through Nutt's front door. 

Nutt continues to publicly question the actions of the college’s president, William Holda, and the majority of its board, whose members he says should be replaced.

“Here’s the dilemma I keep facing,” Nutt said. “I don’t want the college hurt. I want the college to thrive and grow. But we have a very dysfunctional board in place that is closing their eyes to everything.”

Holda said there was a "true, true bidirectional lack of trust" between a majority of the board and Nutt, whom — along with fellow trustee Carlos "Scooter" Griffin — Holda described as "not always right but never in doubt."

According to Nutt, asbestos abatement is just the latest thing the board is not giving proper attention.

Asbestos is a carcinogenic material that was commonly used in construction until its harmful health effects, including mesothelioma and asbestosis, became widely known. It is typically only dangerous when friable, meaning particles become airborne.

According to state law, only properly licensed individuals, taking proper precautions, may remove asbestos from public buildings. State health officials must have at least 10 days' notice must before any removal takes place. Violations carry steep fines.

In an interview this week, Smith said college officials, not wanting to deal with the additional time, money or both required to correctly remove the hazardous material, would have employees remove it and dispose of it.

The first time he said he became uncomfortable was earlier this year when asbestos was allegedly removed from the college’s auditorium shortly before it hosted the Rangerette Revels, the annual showcase of the school’s famous precision dance team.

“My biggest issue is that we didn’t test the air,” Smith said. “We don’t know what was in the air for this major event, and the girls were right back in there on stage.”

He said he reached his breaking point following an alleged improper asbestos abatement at the hospital on campus.

“People are going there to get well,” said Smith, who battled leukemia as a child.

“I decided I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. If you can’t do it right, give me a shovel and I’ll dig ditches or bag groceries for minimum wage. I don’t care.”

With his anxiety on the rise, Smith, who is still employed by the college, started recording his conversations. He later brought the situation to Nutt, who put him in touch with FBI officials.

Nutt, Griffin and Smith all say they have been in touch with federal investigators, but college administrators have said they are unaware of such an investigation.

In the course of being interviewed this week, to demonstrate the administration’s awareness of their actions, Smith played a segment of a secret recording he made of a conversation he had with a man he identifies as Dan Beach, the college’s director of special projects.

In it, the individual identified as Beach says Griffin, who like Nutt has earned a reputation as a provocateur on the board, is seeking to find a reason to fire him and Holda — and he explains the angle Griffin is likely to take on the asbestos issue.

“What I’m guilty of,” he says to Smith in the recording, “is forcing you … to work in that room and all those people are exposed to it, and it’s my fault because I never cleaned it up, and now you guys are dying and I’m the one who killed you.”

Smith responds that he does not want to have to carry around an oxygen tank in his 60s just because he was doing his job.

Beach allegedly replies, “I’m trying to figure out, how do I handle the problem sitting in front of my face right now? For me to fix this, to do it right, probably ain’t going to happen.”

Beach did not respond to a request for comment.

Holda said Smith’s recordings lack context and do not necessarily present the entirety of the conversations they contain. “It’s very difficult to get your arms around the real context,” he said in an interview this week.

The Texas Department of State Health Services and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have both opened investigations into the matter, Holda said.

“I am trying to stay out of their way and let them do their thing,” Holda said. “My first area of focus is to make sure areas called into questions are indeed safe, and to do that with measurement and analysis.”

Before the story even hit the paper, Holda said, he contracted with ERI Consulting, an environmental consulting firm that specializes in asbestos, to measure the air quality in the auditorium, dorms, library and other facilities.

The final results are not all in yet, but Holda said the information received so far shows that the air is clear of asbestos.

Two potential trouble spots in the auditorium were identified, though, he said. Erring on the side of caution, a bathroom was locked, and some questionable floor tiles were covered over. Holda said he hopes to deal with those and any other short-term issues that arise as a result of ERI’s efforts over the winter break.

There are no plans to cancel or move the upcoming Rangerettes show being held in the auditorium.

“My second area of focus,” Holda said, “is to find a way to properly investigate, without interfering with the two state agencies, the allegations that have been made and determine whether or not there is proof that any of these allegations are true.”

He said they had not received from Smith a list of alleged incidents of improper removal or disposal with details on who was involved and when they occurred. 

Smith said the president has not attempted to contact him.

State Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who represents the college, described Smith’s recordings as “sobering.”

Simpson said he is monitoring the situation, but does not yet believe a legislative response is necessary.

“I think what we need is sunlight,” Simpson said. “It’s the best disinfectant. If there has been wrongdoing, we need to identify it, repudiate it and move forward.”

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