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Sale of Asa Wood Elementary delayed for more cleanup work

by HAYDEN BLACKFORD
Daily Inter Lake | November 22, 2022 7:00 AM

Although the clean up of Asa Wood Elementary School was scheduled to be finished in October, the discovery of more materials containing asbestos in the west wing put the project over budget and over due.

School officials project the project will now finish in December. The additional $139,000 in clean up will be paid for by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The same contractors and equipment will be used to finish the job.

The DEQ is the lead on operations and maintenance of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site, with the exception of the mine site and railroad site.

Asa Wood, which the school district stopped using as an elementary school in 2012, previously served the Libby Central School for more than 11 years as a kitchen and a home to the Libby Food Bank and other community projects.

The district lost the use of the kitchen at Asa Wood after making an agreement to sell the property.

The Asa Wood building is being treated after the discovery of lead-based paint, mercury thermometers and materials containing asbestos.

Ron Goodman, Libby Schools superintendent said there is no reason to believe that children were exposed to any of these materials. The Libby Central school now has its own kitchen.

Toxic materials could be released during the process of remediation, and so the school has been working to remove the materials before selling the building. Goodman has been working on the project for three years, and the school has been working on it for over four years.

“The school board has worked hard to ensure that when we sell, that it’s successful and a positive part of our community. Not an empty building,” Goodman said.

After advertising the building, the school interviewed potential buyers to see what their capacity to remodel was, and what their motive for the purchase was. The school hoped to find potential new owners with good intentions, assets and financial means.

When the school finalizes the sale, California-based Compass Health Inc. will begin working with the building. Compass has a history of managing assisted living facilities. Goodman said he can’t speak to the new buyers exact plans, but there are a few possibilities–assisted living included.

Goodman said the school didn't try to get the most money for the building, remediation of which only became possible after the school received a Brownfield grant from the federal government. The school agreed to sell the building for $730,000 in September 2021, but the deed won’t be handed over until remediation is completed.

The school’s $388,000 remediation grant was received in 2021 from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfield Program. This grant money paid for the clean-up and oversight of the area, but the discovery of new materials raised construction costs over budget, Goodman said.

As a government agency, the school is more likely to receive financial help, such as grants. This is why the school felt it was important to fully remediate the building before selling it, Goodman said.

“The bulk of the asbestos is in the tile floor,” Goodman said. “Asbestos tiles are common.”

As long as they are waxed the tiles are not harmful, Goodman said. The school has no reason to believe there was exposure to kids.

Vermiculite, a mineral historically used for insulation which can contain asbestos, was also found in concrete blocks located in the school.

It’s important that the school remediates the property since, even though the asbestos is currently abated, future renovations could release asbestos fibers. Abating asbestos refers to procedures that control the release of asbestos fibers, or materials.

The DEQ became involved in the project in 2021. The DEQ looks at what asbestos contamination there is relative to the specific plans owners have for the property. Then, the DEQ gauges what remediation is needed.

“Right now we’re stuck in a holding pattern,” Jason Rappe, Federal Superfund project officer said.

Rappe said the DEQ found asbestos plaster, which is a contaminant of concern, and they will reimburse the school district for the plaster removal.

Generally, if a property owner is interested in remodeling or other work, they will let the DEQ know, and the DEQ will look for asbestos contamination, Rappe said.

“We outline if it makes more sense to abate or remove,” Rappe said.

Rappe said the DEQ is considering a partial demolition of the west wing.

“We still need to have further conversation,” Rappe said ‘It’ll come down to cost and plausibility.”

Either way, the project has been underway for a long time. The school hopes to avoid a situation similar to the old high school in Libby – which sits abandoned in the center of town after it left the school district's ownership, Goodman said.

Asa Wood Elementary School was originally built in 1953 and functioned as a junior high. A large junior high served Libby, as there was a lot of growth happening at that time, Goodman said. The school was changed into an elementary school in the 1970s after several remodels.

“It’s a good move for the school system to not take care of a building that we’re not using anymore,” Goodman said.

Heating Asa Wood costs nearly $20,000 a year, and the school system needs to pay to maintain the building as well. These are funds that could be used elsewhere, Goodman said.

“Our strong desire is that this is a good move for the community as well,” Goodman said.