Students sign petition, worry about asbestos

Beginning next week, people in white rubber suits, face masks and gloves will transform the University’s Art Building into a maze of plastic, scaffolding and power tools. Despite its science fiction-like appearance, the reality of the asbestos abatement project in the Art Building poses a threat to many.
Students finalized details of a petition Wednesday that will eventually be sent to University administrators and Gov. Arne Carlson. The petition specifies concerns about a lack of communication with administration, inconvenience and health associated with the asbestos removal project set to begin next Tuesday.
“With the petition, I tried to represent all that I heard at the meetings,” said Laura Hallen, a senior majoring in studio arts who co-wrote the petition. “I’m directly affected, just like everyone else.”
The petition grew from two informational meetings earlier this week that brought representatives from the University’s Facilities Management to the Art Building to explain the asbestos removal process and address concerns.
Although officials have been aware of an asbestos problem in the Art Building since 1991, the problem has gained urgency since the University received funds to build the Minnesota Library Access Center.
The center will serve as an archive for not only the University, but other libraries in the Twin Cities area. The building will be constructed in the limestone along the banks of the Mississippi River near the Art Building.
Construction of the archive building is set to begin in July. The project requires blasting into the limestone, potentially dislodging the asbestos from the ceiling of the Art Building. To thwart this risk of exposure, the University’s Asbestos Group plans to remove the asbestos in four phases from the building prior to the ground breaking.
However, with the end of the year fast approaching, the inconvenience of the project has fueled the frustration of many University students, staff and faculty members.
Jason Schoch, a graduate student and teaching assistant in the studio arts department, said that these activities will make conducting classes difficult.
“It’s pretty much forcing others to have classes at a construction site,” he said.
Roger Jeremiah, a member of the asbestos removal group, said the engineer in charge of the project said the asbestos only had a 5 percent chance of falling during construction. However, the University went ahead with plans to remove it now.
“It is a very hurry-up project,” said Roger Jeremiah, a member of the University’s asbestos removal team. “At the University, the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.”
Department members were also concerned with the lack of communication about the project.
The art department posted notices Monday saying the building would undergo asbestos removal while students are in the building. Students can still withdraw from classes if they think their classroom work and health are at risk. However, the deadline for withdrawal from classes is Friday.
“I’m not against the abatement at all. If you can make the building safer for the rest of classes in the future, then it should be done,” Schoch said. “We’re the ones that are affected. We were the ones kept in the dark.”
In addition, the art department is trying to arrange full student refunds for those who withdraw after the deadline.
“As a student registering for class, I would have liked to know (earlier),” said Michael Wichtel, a junior majoring in studio arts.
However, for faculty and staff members, withdrawal from classroom instruction is considered a breach of their contracts with the University.
Classrooms will also have to be rearranged in order for the abatement team to do its work, requiring some classes to be held temporarily in the Riverbend Cafe of Willey Hall.
Included in the concerns were the safety and privacy of art models. During a phase of the abatement process, models will lose their changing room, and the make-shift classrooms might not adequately prevent intrusions by non-art students. Some models said walking around dressed in only a robe might be suggestive to those outside the art community.
The health risks of asbestos particles in the air are also a concern for many students.
Jodie Walz, a senior in the College of Liberal Arts, said she is afraid for the safety of students in the building during the removal.
“I just finished a cancer treatment in January,” she said. “I’d hate to have anyone go through that.”
Inhalation of asbestos fibers has been known to cause serious illnesses, including lung cancer.
Jeremiah said that the abatement will be carefully monitored through inspections standards set by the Minnesota Department of Health. If the inspections do not meet requirements, the removal process will be postponed and the building evacuated. “We take an up-front, ethical approach to this,” he said. “We will not hesitate to shut this project down.”
He said the University’s history with asbestos removal has never resulted in a workman’s compensation claim or a civil lawsuit.
Donald Kelsey, library facilities planner, said that though the two projects raise many concerns, he thinks the University is working to reduce them. “I believe that Facilities Management is being as responsible as it can to minimize the impact.”