Asbestos penalties cloudily communicated

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • September 6, 2012

Since the April 21 issue of the Beacon, some students settled for quiet summers at home, working odd jobs cleaning musty attics or mowing grass. Some settled into thankless, unpaid internships in New York or Los Angeles, taking their first deep breaths of adult life beyond the corner of Boylston and Tremont. Some even settled in hammocks and lounge chairs by the beach, sipping pina coladas as best as they could. 

Meanwhile, in downtown Boston, Emerson College settled with the Commonwealth to pay $250,000 for purported toxin violations following the renovation of the Colonial Building. Led by Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley, the claim alleged that the improper removal of materials contaminated with asbestos put workers at local disposal facilities in danger, creating a public health risk. 

Both the college and Suffolk Construction, whose quarter million dollar settlement matches Emerson’s for a grand total of $500,000, deny conscious wrongdoing. 

In an email to students, Vice President of Marketing and Communications Andy Tiedemann wrote, “At no time did the building’s air test positive for contaminants. The Colonial Building Residence Hall is completely safe for people to live in and to visit. Emerson College is very pleased that this matter has been settled to the satisfaction of all involved and we look forward to continuing our efforts to contribute to the cultural and economic development of Boston.”

Students who feared for the safety of their beloved residence hall—the cushy, renovated one with single rooms and views of the Common—might feel reassured by Tiedemann’s statement. However, the brief missive to the student body does not address the thrust of Coakley’s allegations: that careless disposal of materials might have harmed Massachussetts residents. Those landfill workers were at the heart of Coakley’s bilateral legal and media campaign, not students looking for a reason to be alarmed. 

Sidestepping an unflattering media narrative by appealing to students’ concerns about personal health and safety is a cynical move, at best. Making no mention of the violations Coakley actually alleged by neglecting to clarify or even acknowledge them is insulting to a crop of students prized above all else for their communication savvy. This was not about us, or where we live. This was about alleged impropriety that might have harmed total strangers miles away, funded in part with our money. 

The student body of Emerson College has a stake in our school’s reputation. Our tuition dollars helped fund the Colonial’s renovation and will in part cover the cost of settling. Emerson’s administration, however, seems to have settled for keeping us in the dark about a matter imperative to our public profile.

The air in the Colonial may not contain asbestos, but the college’s communication with students on the matter doesn’t smell right.