The Failure of Asbestos Monitoring in Maine State Buildings

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Adam Caplan-Bricker

Tom Juravich


Executive Summary

      Asbestos is a hazardous air pollutant within the meaning of the Clean Air Act.  For decades it was a ubiquitous element of many building materials due to its waterproofing, fireproofing, and insulating properties.  By 1990 the production and distribution of most asbestos-containing building materials had been banned, but the proactive abatement of asbestos continued to be non-compulsory except in public schools.

      In 1985 Maine surveyed the state of asbestos in its state buildings and found that a thorough abatement would cost in excess of $100,000,000.  The majority of this asbestos is still present today, and poses more of a threat as buildings have continued to age.

      Concerns of maintenance workers about the reemergence of asbestos dust in the Cultural Building archives led the Maine State Employees Association (MSEA) to issue a Freedom of Access Act (FOAA) request to the Department of Administrative and Financial Services (DAFS) on March 5, 2019, seeking documentation of all the asbestos-related interactions involving the Cultural Building. The result of this FOAA revealed a long and tumultuous asbestos- plagued history involving, since 2000, more than 30 individual surveys and abatement projects in the Cultural Building alone.

      It is often economically impractical to remove all asbestos in large-scale building renovation. Consequently asbestos is typically ‘managed in place’ whenever possible. For this practice to be safe there must be reliable records that are readily accessible to all workers coming into contact with hazardous areas. It is clear from the data of the FOAA request that although some records exist, they are largely unorganized, time-consuming to navigate, and not widely available.

      Data obtained from the FOAA demonstrate that asbestos abatement was all-too- often practiced on an emergency-basis and problem-specific level, to the detriment of the maintenance workers, the building’s regular employees and potentially the public.

      The 1985-1987 crisis of the Maine State Library’s battle with asbestos serves as an extreme lesson in what can go wrong when asbestos management is too long deferred. The Bureau of General Services’ failure to recognize the severity of the emerging issues cost the state millions of dollars in renovation and resulted in Maine’s flagship library closing its doors for more than 17 months. Yet even after this massive project, a reliable record system was not put in place and the asbestos remaining in the building poses persistent problems.

      To protect contractors, state workers, and the public, we advocate for the development of a tracking and monitoring system which would (1) keep detailed records of all of the known locations and corresponding condition of asbestos in state buildings and the history of abatement and exposure in those buildings and (2)  be well-advertised and publicly accessible to all workers who interact with state buildings. Given the records that we have reviewed from the FOAA request, it is clear that some of these records already exists and that the development of a tracking and monitoring system is highly feasible.

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