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It's not just McGill

Crumbling ceilings stand between students, staff and asbestos

  • 8 min to read

Peeling strips of masking tape no longer cover the holes in the ceiling tiles of the Charles H. Clapp Building — a dark joke among faculty and students working on the lower three floors of the asbestos-laden building.

For years, the building’s asbestos fireproofing has crumbled off the structural steel and onto the top of the ceiling tiles. The rotting tiles are plagued by holes and ringed stains from water leaks, occasionally falling to the floor.

“The tiles provide a minimal barrier to contain the asbestos, but the tops of all ceiling tiles have to be treated as contaminated with asbestos, as many test results indicate,” reads a 2009 funding proposal to the Montana Board of Regents.

Asbestos is known to cause diseases, including mesothelioma and other lung cancers that can show up 10 to 40 years after exposure and are often fatal. Friable — crumbling and potentially airborne — asbestos is of greatest threat to health.

To combat that threat, the University put up masking tape.

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Masking tape peels away from where is was placed to cover a hole in the ceiling supposedly to protect from asbestos.

The top two floors of the Clapp building, built in 1971, were renovated in 2008, but in its 2009 proposal to continue abatement with the second floor, the University stressed the critical need for abatement and continued air monitoring to ensure the health and safety of building occupants.

Ten years later, no widespread abatement of the lower floors has been done. Regular air monitoring has not been done, either.

On Jan. 31, the University found another of its buildings, McGill Hall, posed an asbestos danger and evacuated it, posting signs to the doors. It remains closed, displacing offices, classes and a childcare center in the basement.

But across campus, under dangling strips of masking tape, holes and rotting tiles, life goes on in the Clapp building.


 

This past fall, in interviews taken on the lower three floors of the Clapp building, faculty and students painted a picture of chaotic disrepair and asbestos management where they work and study.

Biochemistry professor Steve Lodmell, who has worked on the second floor since 1999, said he experienced two serious floods in the past 10 years. One came down through the ceiling tile and soaked the printer in his lab.

The area directly above the flood had been previously abated, but Lodmell questioned where the water had been before falling through his ceiling.

“After we’ve mopped up the water, are there asbestos fibers that were carried with it? Because who knows what route that water took? That’s risky,” said Lodmell.

Walking through his lab, he indicated the tiles of unabated ceiling just a few yards from the scene of the flood.

“I’m looking for some tape,” said Lodmell, pointing up to a dark hole at the corner of a ceiling tile. “Ah yes, there’s some tape over here. Looking pretty old and grungy and not doing what it’s supposed to anymore.”

The 2009 proposal for second floor abatement reads, “The asbestos fireproofing sprayed on the structural steel in the building is poorly adhered causing it to delaminate from the steel, falling on top of the ceiling tiles or into rooms where no ceiling tiles exist. The tiles provide a minimal barrier to contain the asbestos, but the tops of all ceiling tiles have to be treated as contaminated with asbestos, as many test results indicate.”

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Damaged ceiling tiles in a second-floor classroom on Feb. 6, 2019.

According to UM Director of Facilities Services Kevin Krebsbach, the masking tape was put in place to prevent asbestos from falling through the tile.

Physics professor Paul Janzen, who has worked in the building for 10 years, said tiles crashed to the floor for years in the basement hallway under the breezeway until the hallway was renovated and abated.

But when a leaking sewer line rotted out in the summer of 2018, the leftover mess ended up in a nearby room.

“They knew this room leaked to begin with, so gallons of wet-cut concrete water came down and washed whatever happened with the asbestos out of the place, and now they had a big asbestos mess they had to clean up,” Janzen said.

That was just this past summer, and tiles went back into place only a few days before fall classes started. The tiles don’t look new. They’re stained, meaning either the leaks persist or the old tiles were reused, Janzen noted.

Brad Evanger, who specializes in asbestos management for UM Facilities Services, said the tiles were not reused.  

Like Lodmell, Janzen worried about the path water takes in these incidents.

“Their rule is if it goes through an abated room, it’s clean. Many years ago, they had a leak in the deionized water from the AIDS lab, so it went down from the second floor AIDS lab through the first floor Herpes lab into my lab. And they decided since my ceiling was abated, there was nothing to worry about,” Janzen said.

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Damaged ceilings and walls in a lab on the second floor of the Charles H. Clapp building at the University of Montana. The damaged tiles are the only thing keeping the asbestos in the ceiling.

Looking up, he said, “You don’t need to ask me if I think that masking tape is doing anything.”

Although UM’s maintenance crews have specific protocols for handling asbestos in the building, Janzen remembered a crew of outside contractors coming in to update the building’s lighting and removing ceiling tiles haphazardly.  

Whenever something “interesting” happens, as Janzen put it, the University brings in an outside abatement crew to clean up. When everything is clean, they perform a clearance test of asbestos. Janzen noted that the results of these tests have never been posted for the Clapp Building.

“It doesn’t leave you warm and fuzzy,” Janzen said.

In the fall, when asked in an interview if regular testing was done in the Clapp building, Krebsbach confirmed that it was not.

“We could take random tests every so often,” Krebsbach said then. “We could post those if we needed to.”

In the 2009 proposal, the University said, “To date, air sampling has shown no elevated levels of asbestos fibers in the occupied space and we can say with assurance that we have not so far put occupants’ health at risk. In order to say that in the future, we will need to continue to do air monitoring.”

Jaylene Naylor, a lab instructor and IT specialist on the second floor who has worked in the building for 11 years, said Facilities Services personnel don’t like to work on the unabated floors because they know it’s dangerous.

On the second floor, two students said they were concerned about asbestos in the building.

The two wished to remain anonymous, in part because they didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.

“The way things are at the University right now, it just makes me nervous,” said one student, who has studied on the second floor for years.

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Gray wall paneling, supposedly made of asbestos, in the corner of a second-floor lab on Feb. 6, 2019.

They only know not to pound anything into the asbestos wall where they work because someone they work with told them not to. They never received personal notice about the asbestos from the University. The University doesn’t send emails or conduct trainings regarding asbestos, so employees in the Clapp building rely on word-of-mouth and small signs posted around the building.

Krebsbach said in the fall that the University could do more to alert building occupants.

“Most of the occupants are aware of it, but if you have a new professor who gets a new lab and doesn’t understand the seriousness of it, he might be moving ceiling tiles and stuff like that,” he said.      

In a demonstration of the word-of-mouth system on the second floor, research specialist Laura Hall showed the marks she and an undergraduate assistant unknowingly cut into laboratory bench tops while making labels — until they happened to find out there was asbestos in them too.

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Research specialist Laura Hall works in a lab on the second floor of the on Feb. 8, 2019. Hall and the others want thorough asbestos testing of the building.

Besides cutting into the bench tops, certain walls and bumping the ceiling tiles, the building occupants aren’t even allowed to change the light bulbs because asbestos accumulates on them.

In the walk-in cooler in Hall’s lab, they used a household lamp after the ceiling bulb burned out. Hall found that somewhat humorous back in the fall.          

“Maybe you should tell him what’s not made of asbestos,” said Dan Drecktrah, an assistant research professor who works with Hall. “It’d be a shorter list.”

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A floor lamp illuminates a walk-in cooler in a second floor lab in the Charles H. Clapp building at the University of Montana. The lamp was used for light because a burnt out bulb could not easily be replaced due to the presence of asbestos in the ceiling.

Along with the ceiling tiles, counters and bench tops, the floor tiles have asbestos in them as well.

Like other faculty, Hall mentioned the masking tape.

“Doesn’t that make you feel safe?” she said.

The official position of the University and the state at the time was that the Clapp building was still safe for occupants.

As Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for communications and human resources in the office of the commissioner of higher education, said in a fall interview, “It is a safety issue, but the Clapp building is safe.”

Hall said the building’s been forgotten and is in pathetic shape, that donors aren’t taken there on the tour, and the UM president never stops by.

“I know the football team is important, but why do they get that nice new thing?” Hall said about the Washington-Grizzly Champion Center that opened in October 2017.

But despite her worries, she said she ultimately felt safe because Facilities Services personnel had reassured her that she was.

That was all this past fall.   


 

On Friday, Feb. 1, Hall made it clear that reassurance was no longer good enough. At the informational meeting and Q&A in the UC Theater following the closure of McGill Hall due to high asbestos levels in the preschool and offices, she waited her turn among the frightened parents, faculty and students.

Speaking for herself and those she works with, Hall said she was scared. She said unidentified, black material flies out of the heating vents where she works, and she asked if a thorough testing of the Clapp building would be done while McGill Hall is tested. Her concerns were echoed by Paul Haber, president of the University Faculty Association, who spoke for many faculty members in older buildings.

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Lab supplies line the counters and walls of a second floor lab. The gray wall paneling below the window is supposedly made of asbestos.

“I think we’ve talked about that — in the really near future,” answered Krebsbach, and UM Vice President for Operations and Finance Paul Lasiter personally told Hall that testing will be done in the Clapp building.

According to Krebsbach, any building built before 1985 may contain asbestos. Of the 96 campus buildings, 49 were built before 1985.

In the Clapp building, phase contrast microscopy (PCM) tests yielded clearance results to Environmental Protection Agency industrial standards, but transmission electron microscopy (TEM) tests were used in McGill Hall. TEM testing is more accurate because it can detect smaller fibers, according to UM health sciences professor Tony Ward, who used both techniques extensively studying asbestos in Libby, Montana — an asbestos disaster that resulted in innumerable deaths of mine workers and citizens and still poisons the town.

He called PCM the “quick and dirty” method and TEM “the gold standard.”

In the Clapp building, clearance tests are conducted at projects’ completion, and only in isolated areas as a response to major incidents or during renovation. These test the contained air of an area agitated after cleanup. The tests that revealed the positive results in McGill were surface wipe tests.

The EPA has set industrial standards, but asserts that there is no safe level of asbestos.

On paper, renovation of the three unabated floors of the Clapp building has long been a priority for the state and University. In 2015, renovation made it to the state legislature on Senate Bill 416, but died in committee. In the following two planning periods, the priority dropped from fourth to 10th on the state’s long-term university building project list. Over the same time frame, UM has made the Music Building its top priority despite the fact the building’s needs are not safety related.

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A projector in the Charles H. Clapp building at the University of Montana is supported by a device created to avoid drilling into the ceiling. Wires have been run externally for the same reason.

At the going rate, one major project from the state’s list is funded every 10 years — meaning a 100-year wait for the Clapp renovation at the current pace.

Renovation of the Clapp building would cost upward of $12 million, and the state and University have a tight budget.

The Clapp building has long been a maintenance nightmare with an asbestos problem, but after the asbestos incident across campus at McGill, Laura Hall wants more than verbal reassurance that she and those she works with are safe now.

“I want to see the numbers,” she said. “It’s not funny anymore.”