Parents of children exposed to asbestos in McGill Hall’s childcare area met with two attorneys Feb. 7 after grilling University of Montana officials at multiple on-campus meetings about its response to the contamination.
On the second floor of the Florence Building in downtown Missoula, attorneys Adam Duerk and Jim Roberts shared their experiences in representing clients exposed to toxins, and took questions from the nearly two dozen adults in the audience. Some held babies in their arms. Their older children stayed busy at tables on the far side of the room.
A child started to cough.
“Cover your mouth, please,” said his father.
Duerk and Roberts, both part of the Knight Nicastro law firm, held an open meeting Thursday for anyone concerned with being exposed to asbestos in McGill Hall, which the University closed January 31.
“The main purpose is to let people know that there is a legal recourse, and that solutions tend to emerge with time,” Duerk said.
Both Duerk and Roberts represent a client who, like all the parents in the audience, was impacted by the discovery of traces of exposure in McGill well above standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency.
For nearly two months, UM has tried to ease concerns from staff, faculty, students and parents. Tests of a dust pile found above a ceiling tile in McGill Hall showed “unacceptable” amounts of asbestos fibers December 12.
In the following weeks, the University first sealed off several offices. After further tests, officials closed off the building’s preschool center, displacing the program’s 47 children. Two days later, an email announced that the entire building would be shuttered. Although air consistently showed no dangerous level of asbestos fibers, wipe samples taken from computers and furniture in the preschool showed levels far above federal standards.
In the past two weeks, officials heard from parents outraged that they were not told of the initial discovery of asbestos, and professors and students of the Media Arts program who now found themselves without access to specialized equipment or classrooms vital to the program.
When told at a meeting earlier on campus Thursday that McGill may open within the next week, audience members still questioned whether they’d be risking their health by returning to class. And the concern is not contained to McGill.
Martin Horejsi, a professor in the education building, held up a plastic container with bits of ceiling tile that he found on a bookshelf in his office.
“Should I wear a respirator when I clean my office?” he asked environmental hygienist Scott Rogers.
Acting on behalf of its client, Duerk’s firm has requested that the University preserve all material in McGill’s daycare being tested for asbestos, such as books, clothes and furniture. Other items requested for preservation includes emails between the University and the environmental hygienists hired to test for asbestos.
Since the discovery of loose asbestos in December, Duerk said that parents, students and faculty have reached out to his firm for consultation.
According to Duerk, Knight Nicastro has also requested a meeting with University to discuss the concerns of his client directly with officials.
Knight Nicastro has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in cases involving asbestos exposure. In September 2018, the firm successfully defended BNSF Railway company in a $1.67 million lawsuit from an engineer claiming to suffer illnesses caused by asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana.
“These cases often settle,” Duerk said. “But occasionally they do go to trial.”