EPA finds another asbestos hazard in burned building

Additional fibers make debris pile 'potentially a significant health risk'

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2004

The 108-year-old building destroyed in a downtown Juneau fire last month had more asbestos sources than officials originally believed, an Environmental Protection Agency inspector said Wednesday.

Recent debris samples showed the hazardous substance in two of three layers of patching material from the roof, said John Pavitt, air compliance inspector for the federal agency in Anchorage. Officials previously had found the fibers in floor tiles in the demolished building at Front and Seward streets.

The added asbestos source makes the debris pile "potentially a significant health risk," Pavitt said. "I can't quantify it. I can't put a number on it, but this is the very thing we try to prevent with our inspections."

Although federal law requires the owner or a representative to contact the EPA at least 10 working days before demolition, the agency had no notice when an inspector found the building had been knocked down on Sept. 30.

Building owner Tom Huntington did not immediately return a call from the Empire seeking comment.

Pavitt said he doesn't know how prevalent asbestos was in the roof, according to samples taken from the debris pile that remains at the downtown corner.

The commercial building, which had housed a hardware store for most of its existence, leased space to 18 tenants.

Asbestos, a fire-resistant fiber once commonly used in construction, is a known cancer-causing substance that is also known to cause other respiratory disease, Pavitt said. As an asbestos inspector, he reviews health risks.

A microscopic, needlelike asbestos fiber, smaller than a red blood cell, can poke and irritate lung tissue, he explained. It is difficult to remove from the body and difficult to screen out.

While the potential for cancer and lung disease might sound like a warning on a pack of cigarettes, Pavitt said asbestos exposure has been shown especially hazardous for smokers.

"People who smoke and are exposed to asbestos are at significantly higher risk than one or the other," he said.

Pavitt said there is no way to tell whether asbestos fibers from the roof were lifted out into the smoke that poured out of the building during the fire. The smoke wasn't being monitored, he said.

But it is reasonable to believe there was asbestos in the dust kicked up during the demolition and in the debris loaded into trucks and carted to the Juneau dump. No asbestos was found in superficial samples taken from the pile of debris from the dump.

The asbestos found in floor tiles should not have posed a problem because it was sealed, Pavitt said. However, inspection of the scene revealed that the tiles had been broken and gouged, exposing the sort of hazardous fibers that crumble away and become airborne.

"As a practical matter, telling people to stay away from the area is a tough message," he said.

Keeping it wet will hold down the dust. Wednesday, water puddles were visible at the site.

Pavitt said he also understood that a clear sheet of plastic had been placed over the exposed floor where tiles had been gouged.

When the debris is removed, it will have to be removed by people trained in asbestos abatement, Pavitt said. The debris at the site and at the dump will have to be taken out of Juneau to a dump certified for asbestos.

He said the owner will need to submit a plan to EPA for clearing the corner lot and removing 200 tons of debris from the dump. Work can begin as soon as the plan is submitted, he added, noting the EPA is in daily contact with the owner.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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