BEREA -- A small religious school is under criminal investigation after several dozen teenage students and others volunteered over several weekends to gut a building containing asbestos, a cancer-causing agent, according to interviews and records.
Students as young as 13 who attend the Buckeye Education School spent several weekends removing asbestos-filled materials without any protective gear at the former YWCA on Smith Road in Middleburg Heights, said Cleveland Commissioner of Air Quality George Baker, who also works with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Baker said state regulations require a building owner to use certified contractors to remove asbestos.
Darren Clink, who lives next to the former Y, used a camera to shoot video of the students and others taking debris out of the building using buckets and a small front-end loader.
The video shows a large cloud of dust dispersing in the air after debris was dropped into a dumpster.
"The entire site was contaminated with asbestos and the people who were doing it were all children," said Clink. "The kids were loaded with it."
Both Jonathan Borys, principal of Buckeye Education, and Bruce Carmichael, of Sterling Education, which oversees the school, declined to say who asked the students to do the work at the building.
Sterling Education is associated with the Exclusive Brethren, a Christian church that expects congregants to keep separate from the world of sports and entertainment, and not to have a radio or TV, according to its website.
Sterling Education runs 35 schools nationwide.
"We have engaged the services of a certified asbestos remediation company and they are handling the project for us," Carmichael wrote, in an e-mail. "We are fully cooperating with the EPA for an amicable resolution to the situation."
Buckeye Education purchased the building last July so the school could move into a bigger space. A presentation to Middleburg Heights city officials shows plans for a multi-room school with a large gymnasium.
The Ohio EPA began investigating after receiving a complaint in early December, said Ron Fodo, an Ohio EPA criminal investigator who declined further comment because the case was in its early stages.
When regulators visited the site on Dec. 13, they found three dumpsters filled with debris believed to contain asbestos, as well as potentially contaminated material strewn about the property, according to Ohio EPA inspection reports.
Inside, almost all of the interior walls as well as the ceiling had been removed, leaving pipes and other surfaces exposed. It also appeared that debris had been dumped into the deep end of the former Y's pool.
Subsequent tests found that floor tiles, pipes and duct fabric were all filled with asbestos, the records show.
Middleburg Heights Building Commissioner Norm Herwerden later posted signs on the building, warning people to stay out because of dangerous conditions.
Regulators say they'll never know how much of the cancer-causing agent got into the students' lungs over several weekends of work.
"There's no way we can recreate what the conditions were at the time the students were in there," Baker said.
Health inspectors are recommending that students and others log what they did at the site and for how long.
They should also tell a family doctor, who can conduct chest x-rays and respiratory testing to forecast future problems.
Clink, who removes asbestos for a living, says his concern for the students has turned to anger at school officials.
"We've been abating schools for the last 30 years in this town just to keep our kids safe, and then they come in and to save a buck throw a bunch of kids in harm's way," Clink said.