The Environmental Protection Agency has completed an extensive asbestos cleanup at the Towaoc Recreation Center, but the center is still closed to the public pending final repairs by the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
EPA officials said all toxic material was removed and placed in a certified landfill in Utah. EPA emergency cleanup crews finished the job on June 15, after final testing showed no asbestos risk to the public.
“The air samples came back clean, and the air in the facility is clean to breathe,” said Katherine Jenkins, community involvement coordinator for EPA Region 8.
The estimated cost of the cleanup was $600,000, she said, which was covered by the EPA as part of a federal partnership to aid Native American tribes with large pollution cleanups.
Before the center can reopen, ceiling tiles need to be replaced by the tribe and other repairs made, including to the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system, said Recreation Center Director Kia Whiteskunk. The plot is to have a grand reopening in September.
“We’ve place on a fresh coat of paint and are moving office furniture back in,” she said. “It’s coming back together. The community is very keen to get their rec center back.”
The center closed in December for maintenance on a failed heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning system caused by a power outage from lightning strike on a nearby transformer.
During the repairs, it was learned that perilous amounts of asbestos from ancient attic insulation has been released into the building, causing a significant health hazard to the public. Asbestos is a health hazard when disturbed, because airborne fibers can be inhaled and cause respiratory problems.
Because of the magnitude of the contamination and expertise needed, Ute Mountain tribal officials requested that the EPA conduct the cleanup operations. In April, a decontamination crew arrived and removed 370 cubic yards of vermiculite insulation and contaminated ceiling tiles throughout the 30,000-square-foot building, which was built in 1964. Some areas within the building were sealed with foam to ensure that asbestos-containing material could not be inadvertently disturbed and released into the building.
Asbestos-contaminated dust and water that had fallen into in the gymnasium, swimming pool, weight room and offices were vacuumed up, and all surfaces were cleaned.
The presence of vermiculite insulation in the attic especially alarmed Ute Mountain Ute officials.
The vermiculite is from a mine in Libby, Montana, which became part of one of America’s worst man-made environmental disasters after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer brought the problem to light in 1999. Asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines has killed hundreds of residents and sickened thousands of others. The contaminated insulation had been sold nationwide from 1919 to 1990 under the Zonolite Co. brand, bags of which were found in the attic of the Towaoc Recreation Center. Libby became a Superfund site in 2002, and was declared a public health emergency.
The EPA has cleaned up about 2,275 other Zonolite sites and estimates that a few hundred others need mitigation.
“Vermiculite mitigation and cleanup is pretty common because it is so widespread,” said Craig Myers, the EPA’s on-site coordinator for the cleanup. “The Libby mine was the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the U.S.”
Ute Mountain Ute environmental officials learned the problem after investigating reports that water was dripping from the ceiling in the gym and pool area. A broken heat exchanger caused humidity in the building to rise dramatically, causing condensation and significant dripping throughout the building.
Quinton Jacket, of the tribe’s environmental department, said it was a “huge relief” for the tribe that the EPA agreed to clean up the problem and cover the costs.
“The magnitude of the cleanup was too much for our limited resources,” he said.
About a dozen employees in the recreation department were relocated to other offices, and summer youth programs were disrupted as well.
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