University of Montana officials took questions Friday from students, faculty and parents affected by the closure of McGill Hall after tests results over the past month showed elevated levels of asbestos throughout the building.
Attendees, some of whom had worked in McGill for several decades, questioned how classes would be able to continue and what delayed the University’s response to discovering loose asbestos.
“Today is the first day that I’ve heard anyone say that they’re sorry about this affair, and I’m rather shocked that it took 51 days to close the building,” said Barbara Koostra, the former director of the Museum of Arts and Culture at UM. Koostra, who worked in the office technicians identified the initial asbestos contamination, said she complained several times to administrators about the conditions in her office.
The asbestos came from a degrading wrap from an HVAC unit above her office. The University then hired contractors who sealed the room, removed the unit and conducted tests to ensure the area had been abated of asbestos, meaning the asbestos was removed.
Although subsequent air tests showed no particles in the air, dust samples from spots around the building tested positive for asbestos, including the daycare center in McGill’s basement.
UM Director of Facilities Kevin Krebsbach said the University bases its standards on abatement on those established by the Environmental Protection Agency during the cleanup of a massive asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana. According to the EPA’s website, the superfund site cost over $500 million for complete abatement and exposure to asbestos led to the deaths of nearly 400 people.
Krebsbach confirmed that McGill would remain closed for the rest of the semester while crews cleared all of the asbestos.
“Basically, we’re going to replace all of the pipes in the entire building,” he said.
According to UM communications director Paula Short, the University will increase both visual inspections across campus as well as aggressive air testing in the older buildings.
Both officials and the technicians hired to test for asbestos received criticism for their testing methods, waiting to reveal results and for the delay in evacuating the building following those results.
Mark Shogren, director of media arts, said millions of dollars of specialized equipment have become unavailable to students because of the sudden closure, including computers and cameras. He also said that the University placed him and his colleagues in unnecessary danger.
“I don’t remember anything in my contract saying that I would have to deal with a risk of any kind of exposure to anything in this building,” Shogren said.
In one portion of the presentation, UM Safety Program & Associate Emergency Manager Chuck Emnet explained that symptoms for diseases associated with exposure to asbestos typically don’t appear for several decades.
Several members of the audience, who attended a meeting for the parents of children in the campus childcare services on campus, returned to reiterate their concerns.
Short said the University would stay committed to ensuring that, should health problems arise for children in the child care program, parents would still be able to hold the University accountable.
“Even if it’s 40 years from now?” asked a parent.
“Yes,” Short said.
The closure announced Jan. 31 required everyone to exit within 30 minutes, with a warning to leave behind any personal items in order to prevent the further spread of asbestos fibers.
Some students who both work in the storage room and attend courses in McGill as media arts students now have no classes and no job for the time being.
Following the meeting, the University allowed students and faculty to retrieve some items from the building that posed little risk of carrying asbestos particles, such as books, folders and binders.
Kaitlin Clifford, in her third year at the School of Media Arts, has taken several classes in McGill Hall. Before this week, she said she would spend close to six hours a day in the building’s computer lab.
According to Clifford, her professor still has not secured a new workspace for her interactive media class.
“I just wish they would have told us sooner,” she said. “I got the email saying there was asbestos in the building Tuesday, went to class the next day, and then the next I found out that we were moving.”