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Asbestos Discovery Rattles UM Community

McGill Hall at the University of Montana.
Edward O'Brien
Montana Public Radio
McGill Hall at the University of Montana.

A campuswide meeting to discuss the decision to abruptly close a busy University of Montana building for the rest of spring semester was peppered with flashes of anger, anxiety and even moments of empathy Friday.

"In my 30 years here, this is one of the most difficult things to come to, especially with the children in the day care," Kevin Krebsbach, director of UM’s Facilities Services said.

He’s talking about McGill Hall, located just south of the university’s swimming pool. Last month high levels of asbestos were detected in that building which houses office space, classrooms, labs and that preschool attended by almost 50 children.

“I am deeply concerned. I have two children here that go to school. They take classes in that building all the time. I do have a personal involvement with that,” Krebsbach said.

Back in December a routine maintenance issue led to the discovery of asbestos in one of McGill’s office suites and the suite’s HVAC system. UM’s facilities team originally thought the asbestos was the direct result of their work, when in fact degrading pipework joints led to the release of the asbestos fibers.

Kevin Krebsbach, director of UM’s Facilities Services gives an update on the asbestos found in McGill Hall, Feb. 1, 2019.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montana Public Radio
Montana Public Radio
Kevin Krebsbach, director of UM’s Facilities Services gives an update on the asbestos found in McGill Hall, Feb. 1, 2019.

Under EPA standards 5,000 asbestos fibers per square centimeter could trigger a residential cleanup. Test results of swipes taken from various surfaces so far in McGill range from far lower than that to more than 400,000 fibers per square centimeter; that sample most likely taken near that deteriorating pipe joint. More testing is on the way.

Asbestos can cause a variety of deadly lung diseases, symptoms of which may take decades to manifest. At this point it remains unknown what level of asbestos exposure people who use the building may have had, or whether they could expect negative health impacts.

"I don’t remember anything in my contract saying that I would have to deal with the risk associated to any kind of exposure to anything in this building."

Mark Shogren is director of UM’s School of Media Arts housed in McGill Hall. Shogren says he’s worked in that building for 13 years.

"I just assumed the university would have been aware of the fact that there was, indeed, asbestos in a building that was built on their property. That, to me, is a real concern going forward in my life and for all the students – thousands of students that we’ve put through that place and adjunct and everyone else who’s been through there," Shogren says.

UM spokeswoman Paula Short says officials are reviewing records of any repair or remodeling projects in McGill to determine when there may have been increased chances of human exposure to asbestos particles.

Officials say they’re planning to adapt asbestos testing protocols used in Libby, MT to approximate how children could have disturbed and distributed asbestos particles in McGill. That sampling could start as soon as this weekend.

UM employees including student employees who worked in McGill and may have been exposed to asbestos can file work comp claims for any related medical tests or treatment.

But asbestos is common in older buildings throughout the Montana University System. Paul Haber, president of the UM Faculty Association says he’s hearing a lot of anxiety from colleagues across campus about the asbestos risk in their buildings.

Paula Short says officials are considering increasing the frequency of visual asbestos inspections. UM is also consulting with EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality about developing additional asbestos planning.

So how much could all this cost; cleanup, additional testing not to mention the very real possibility of litigation?

"I can tell you that as we’ve moved forward we have not looked at cost as a determining or deciding factor in how we’ve proceeded to date," says Spokeswoman Paula Short. "That is a larger question that we will need to address at some point, but quite frankly our priority has been the health and safety of our faculty, students, staff, and our students in the child care."

Annie Sondag is a professor of Health and Human Performance housed in McGill. Sondag says her heart goes out to all the parents and children of the ASUM Child Care Preschool. She’s also concerned about her own health and the wellbeing of her colleagues.

"Right now it seems sort of unreal that something like this could happen. In some ways all of us must feel a little bit like the people in Libby felt when they discovered their exposure. I feel like we also don't have a lot of information yet about the rest of the building, how long this has been going on."

UM has set up an information website on the McGill Hall asbestos issue.

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