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Firm pays for part in air problem

The settlement helps pay for dust abatement at Denham Oaks Elementary required after air made students sick.

A New Jersey-based construction company will pay the Pasco County School District $583,000 for its role in contributing to an indoor air quality problem at Denham Oaks Elementary School four years ago.

The settlement will help the district recoup most of the $661,000 that it spent cleaning up the school after 30 children and teachers fell ill. The district still has claims outstanding against the school's architect.

The Norwood Company, of Cherry Hill, N.J., built Denham Oaks in 1995, and during the project's final stages, workers sanded the building's external stucco. The resulting dust was never cleaned up, and the school district contends it made children and teachers sick years later when the school's air circulation system spread it throughout the school.

The air troubles plagued Denham Oaks for weeks as district safety officials and independent experts tried unsuccessfully to find what caused so many teachers and kids to complain of itchy eyes, runny noses and sore throats.

School officials originally thought a combination of chemicals and pesticides was to blame. Finally, an air quality specialist from the University of South Florida said the dust was to blame. The district eventually hired an asbestos abatement company to clean up the dust.

During the cleanup the district bused 200 students and their teachers to two other elementary schools while hundreds more stayed home.

Superintendent John Long said there haven't been any indoor air quality problems at Denham Oaks since the cleanup, which included new ceiling tiles, high-tech air filters, a dismantling of the school's air conditioning system and two floor-to-ceiling washings.

"I'd venture to say that Denham Oaks is one of the cleanest schools in the county," Long said.

The district's agreement with Norwood calls for a $383,000 payment, which was awarded by a panel of arbitrators in January. In the past two weeks the company also agreed to pay the district an additional $200,000 in interest and fees. In addition to cleanup expenses, the district also has spent $144,000 so far on lawyers, tests and experts for its case.

"We'll at least recover almost everything that it cost us," said Kent Trufant, the district's director of construction who oversaw the claim against Norwood.

_ Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischersptimes.com.

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