The carcinogen asbestos lurks hidden in Kenai Peninsula buildings, including schools. However, borough maintenance workers assure the public the asbestos poses no threat and they are getting rid of it.
Don McCloud, borough maintenance director, reported that the long-term asbestos abatement project on the peninsula is about half done.
In the meantime, the old construction material is more of a worry for maintenance workers than for the public.
"Most of the asbestos we are abating does not present a danger," said general foreman Pat Malone. "As we upgrade a building, slowly but surely we remove it."
Asbestos is a mineral fiber. In the past, it was added to products, including construction materials, for its insulation, fire resistance and strength. But in the 1970s, use was phased out after people learned that the microscopic fibers could cause fatal lung disease years after exposure.
Asbestos-containing material became a high-profile public concern after federal legislation known as AHERA (the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) was enacted in 1987. AHERA requires that all schools be inspected for asbestos-containing building materials, and that appropriate management plans be developed.
Schools, under AHERA, have the most stringent asbestos rules of any type of building, McCloud said.
The borough inspects schools annually and keeps track of the asbestos content of older buildings. If the asbestos-containing portions deteriorate or the building is scheduled for other remodeling, maintenance workers take out the asbestos.
Malone noted that workers must be wary because sometimes asbestos shows up in newer buildings or materials that were not supposed to contain it.
The borough takes care of asbestos abatement in-house, with maintenance workers specially trained for the task. They work during the summer, while schools are not in session. Abatement is a dangerous process, involving protective clothing and isolation of work areas, they said.
Asbestos in buildings seldom threatens others using the facilities, because it is covered over, glued down or otherwise encapsulated. It only becomes harmful if the fibers are frayed and released into dust people could inhale -- for example, if someone cut through asbestos-bearing wallboard with a power saw.
"The asbestos that is there does not present a danger -- unless you start messing with it," Malone explained.
Bill Kopecky, another general foreman at the borough maintenance department, said the borough spent about $120,000 on asbestos abatement last year. Even more expensive is the "build back" to replace structural materials removed. That added about $150,000 to $200,000 to the overall cost.
Most asbestos the maintenance team removes is in flooring as vinyl asbestos tile or as mastic under carpeting or tile.
The major asbestos abatement projects during 1999 and 2000 were tile removals at the old Kenai Elementary School, the Borough Building in Soldotna, Nikolaevsk School, Kenai Middle School, Homer Middle School, Paul Banks Elementary in Homer, Redoubt Elementary in Soldotna, Kenai Central High School and Seward High School.
At Kenai Elementary, the abatement was part of a massive remodeling project.
The old school, built in 1949 and 1956, had been decommissioned. Renovated, it now houses the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula, Kenai Alternative School and Aurora Borealis Charter School. Asbestos sources there included suspended ceilings, insulation and cement asbestos board.
The project list for 2001 will be assembled in March as part of the spring budget process, Kopecky said.
The priority asbestos project probably will be the school at Tyonek, where the crew will be tearing down old portable classrooms.
Kopecky noted that years ago parents worried about trace asbestos in the schools, but the concerns have diminished over time.
McCloud added that people now seem better informed about such issues. They can get more information more easily, using resources such as the Internet, he said.
The maintenance supervisors characterized asbestos abatement as a perennial project that will take a generation or so to resolve, one that crews keep plugging away at, marking progress one year at a time.
"We are not trying to eliminate 100 percent," Kopecky said. "Until the school is demolished, you would never see it."
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