Removal of asbestos is a lengthy task

Nancy Ngo

The University has actively removed asbestos from its buildings for the past six years. The projects won’t necessarily be getting smaller, nor will the University be asbestos-free anytime soon.
Officials have no concrete answers regarding how many buildings on campus actually have asbestos in them. Because asbestos products were widely used in constructing most University buildings, removal will take a considerable amount of time. And that amount of time is only increased by other factors — like removal costs, health risks and space constraints.
“How many buildings on campus (containing asbestos) are there? There’s very few that don’t,” said Tim Nelson, asbestos coordinator for Facilities Management. He said any building built before the 1980s is known to contain asbestos.
Though the University averages 250 asbestos-related projects a year, the six-year-old asbestos team will not be resting anytime soon. “It’s an ongoing process,” said Nelson.
Inhalation of asbestos fibers can increase the risk of minor to serious illnesses, including lung, stomach or colon cancer. Most buildings used asbestos materials in construction up until the 1960s and ’70s, when researchers discovered the health risks.
Risk levels are directly linked to higher levels of exposure to asbestos fibers that are airborne. However, symptoms of asbestos-related complications generally don’t surface until 15 to 40 years after initial exposure.
Nelson said that the University has a reason to be concerned. But he said that the University has implemented a safe abatement process that minimizes health risks.
For example, Nelson said that filtering devices help control asbestos fibers from being airborne and workers wear high-quality protective gear.
Eric Kruse, associate vice president for Facilities Management, said that reconstruction and remodeling projects on campus help determine which buildings will undergo asbestos removal.
“The priorities are based on the other projects and what’s going on in the buildings,” Kruse said.
Nelson said that the University’s main goal in asbestos projects is to ensure the health and safety of occupants in University buildings.
Currently, two larger University abatement projects are underway. One is in the Art Building, where the asbestos team is removing layers in ceiling tiles before the new Minnesota Library Access center is built adjacent to it. The access center construction begins in July.
The other effort in Wilson Library is motivated by installation of a sprinkling system in the building.
Nelson said that the team is trying to either remove or control the asbestos from being airborne so that workers and building occupants can operate in a safe environment.
While the project goals have the well-being of those occupants in mind, concerns about health still prevail.
Students have already dropped classes in the Art Building because of the abatement project, which is going on while students are in the building. Students can still withdraw from their classes if they think either their classroom work or health might be at risk.
“Of the six who have asked to be withdrawn, most are based on health,” said Cindy Cribbs, coordinator of advising in the art department.
Though the deadline for withdrawing from classes was May 10, students affected by the project were given the option last week to drop their class and still get a full refund.
Students contended that the 10-day notice they were given about the asbestos removal project was not enough time for them to make a decision before the deadline.
“I made calls to the registrar’s office. They were very accommodating,” said Cribbs. “Even this week (other departments) have to petition to withdraw, but we’ve eliminated that step.”
Fay Thompson, director of Environmental Health and Safety, said the University practices asbestos abatement at an acceptable level. She said that students should not have to resort to dropping out of classes for health concerns.
“I can understand the concern,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that others might not realize that they will not necessarily be exposed to the asbestos,” said Thompson.
She said the health risk is related to the degree of exposure. “I don’t think asbestos exposure at the University is a problem,” said Thompson. “The whole process is designed so there shouldn’t be an increased risk to anybody.”
She said that workers and other traffic in buildings have different factors of risk. Thompson said the people facing the most risk are those who actually sprayed the asbestos into the ceiling when buildings were built.
Nelson said that the ideal time for asbestos abatement projects are during the school year because the University hires contractors for the removal. Prices are often higher in the summertime when contractors are more in demand and less available.
Asbestos project costs at the University range from $1,000 to $500,000 each. At least five of those projects cost more than $100,000. Asbestos removal in the Art Building is one of the largest, expected to total $400,000.
Currently, another abatement project is underway in the Biological Sciences Center on the St. Paul campus. It started in February and is expected to be done by July.
Pending regent approval for funding, Haecker Hall on the St. Paul campus might be the next major building to undergo asbestos removal. It is slated for comprehensive renovation that requires everything inside the building to be removed. Asbestos abatement there is estimated to cost $329,000.
“We’re taking (Haecker Hall) down to the concrete floors and the concrete structure above,” said Nelson. “It’s like basically starting with a new building.”
Charles Dahl, assistant to the director in the Office of the Registrar, said the situation in the Art Building is rare. He said he hopes that future asbestos projects during the school year would not result in the same situation where deadlines for withdrawing from classes are extended.
“In the future we’re hoping to avoid the situation where we have to vacate rooms,” he said. “If a situation arises where we couldn’t provide the education we promised, it’s conceivable that the situation could happen again.”
He said that the criteria for extended deadlines are for unusual circumstances that are beyond a student’s control.