Daniel Rubin: A year later, officer's asbestos mission still unsettled

Officer Paul Zenak , who was reprimanded after complaining, has not returned to work since filing a whistle-blower suit.

Officer Paul Zenak's trouble with the brass started a year ago, he says, when he was coordinating the Police Athletic League of Philadelphia's center in Wissinoming.

The basement was undergoing renovation, and the officer didn't like the look of some mold on the pipes that run through the homework room. It was worse than that, a New Jersey contractor named Joe Bailey told him - there was asbestos.

Zenak was already wary of the stuff. His uncle Bill, a Philadelphia Gas Works employee, had died of mesothelioma, a cancer that comes from inhaling asbestos fibers, in 2008. That was the year the officer was assigned to the youth group center in the Wissinoming United Methodist Church, and Zenak couldn't help but notice the sticker the city Health Department had slapped on the boiler of his new workplace warning of an asbestos hazard.

So in September 2011, when the contractor said there was exposed asbestos on the 60 feet of pipe that hung in the room where neighborhood kids studied and played on the computer, Zenak reacted fast.

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  • He closed off the area and notified the church and his sergeant. The sergeant, he says, assured him there was no problem: The contractor was licensed by the city to work with the carcinogen. Two weeks later, when Zenak returned to the basement, he found the place a mess - dust piled on the floor and still inside a Shop-Vac that had been left uncovered.

    Zenak called his sergeant to complain. And that day he received the first reprimand of a 21-year career that has included recognition for being his district's officer of the year. He kept pushing, asking for an air test and demanding to see the license of the contractor hired to perform more than $25,000 worth of renovations to the church. The officer asked why PAL, not the church, was paying for the work. Another reprimand followed.

    In May, Zenak filed a whistle-blower suit in Common Pleas Court against PAL, the church, the contractor, and the city, which partially funds the athletic league.

    I poked around the case at the time, and a PAL lawyer told me there was no asbestos at the site - that the city had gone in to perform tests, and that the league had hired its own licensed firm to test the place just to be safe.

    But the matter isn't going away. During depositions, Zenak's lawyer was handed a $955 invoice the contractor had sent PAL for asbestos removal at the Wissinoming center. He also sent a bill for $640 worth of asbestos work at the PAL center in Oxford Circle.

    Neither the contractor nor his attorney got back to me. Bailey told the Philadelphia Daily News in June he was mistaken in thinking what he'd removed was asbestos. Jeff Moran, the city Health Department spokesman, says Philadelphia has never certified Bailey to handle asbestos.

    Zenak's lawyer, Aaron Freiwald, now wants the health of every child who has used either center since 2008 to be monitored. On Thursday, he filed a class-action suit against all of the parties, adding the Glading Memorial Presbyterian Church on East Cheltenham Avenue, where the Oxford Circle PAL meets.

    Zenak has not been back on the job since filing suit. The 43-year-old father of four says he suffers from asthmalike symptoms as well as anxiety about returning to a hostile work environment.

    I asked what he wanted out of the suit. "I want to make sure everything, if it wasn't done right, then it gets done right," he said. "And personally, at this point, I'm pretty [angry]. Every day that goes by, all I do is think about this and what they tried to do to my career."

    Seems to me there's still a question of whether the contractor actually handled asbestos. He is scheduled to be deposed next week.

    Who knows how long this case will go on? In the meantime, the idea of carcinogens hanging over the heads of those who find safety in the motto "Cops Helping Kids Since 1947" can offer no comfort to anyone.

     


    Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin.

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