Old Main power plant needs cleaning

The University must clear asbestos from the Old Main Heating Plant before it can renovate.

Nicolas Hallett

Before workers renovate the University of Minnesota’s Old Main Heating Plant, they have to clean out lethal materials inside.

The century-old plant, which hasn’t operated since 2000, contains a significant amount of asbestos as well as other hazardous materials like lead, coal ash, heavy metals and petroleum products.

Originally built in 1912, Old Main is set to undergo a $96 million renovation to better heat and power the Minneapolis campus.

University services Senior Project Manager Matt Stringfellow said the University is accepting offers to remove the poisonous materials in the plant.

“A lot of University buildings have asbestos insulation in them, even today,” he said. “We are working to get it out as we can, but there are still a lot of the old buildings that have it.”

Since asbestos fibers are so small, no level of exposure is safe, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Stringfellow said University employees held offices in the Old Main building as recently as the summer but have since moved.

“That wasn’t the best situation,” he said. “They had to take precautions related to [the asbestos].”

Workers will begin sanitizing the plant in November, and the process will take about seven months, Stringfellow said.

The University originally planned to complete the renovation by January 2016, but Stringfellow said the project has fallen behind.

The University still has to get an air permit for the chemicals emitted during construction. Approval typically takes one year, Stringfellow said.

“The whole building has been sitting there a long time needing to be cleaned up,” he said, “so that’s what this is going to do.”

Health effects

Stringfellow said asbestos is not inherently deadly as a mineral unless it’s disturbed and becomes airborne. It’s best detected by sampling the air, he said.

The small fibers are so lightweight, it takes three days without any air movement for them to settle, said Masoud Mohsenian, an environmental health and safety specialist at the University.

“When you breathe it in, your body’s natural defense cannot trap these fibers,” Mohsenian said. “So it penetrates deep into your lung, and then it just sits there and causes scars and different kinds of cancers.”

In many University buildings, asbestos is used as insulation or fire retardant. As many as 46 campus buildings could contain some form of asbestos, and 16 of those have it in spray-on fireproofing, according to a Facilities Management document.

“Most of the insulation is not accessible to people,” Stringfellow said, “it’s behind walls and things like that.”

Many University buildings went up when asbestos was an industry standard material, well before its ill effects were discovered, Stringfellow said.

Minnesota Department of Health Compliance Supervisor Daniel Locher said asbestos can cause mesothelioma, a form of cancer. There’s no known cure for mesothelioma. Mohsenian said diseases caused by asbestos can be latent for 10 to 40 years.

“You could be breathing asbestos fiber right now and you wouldn’t be sick,” he said, “but 40 years from now you could have mesothelioma.”