Portions of Gracedale’s basement shuttered after tests find asbestos

Portions of Gracedale’s basement shuttered after tests find asbestos

Source: http://www.lehighvalleylive.com, January 20, 2012
By: Tom Shortell

Northampton County has shut down parts of Gracedale nursing home’s basement after tests revealed too-high levels of asbestos, officials confirmed Thursday.

Northampton County Executive John Stoffa and Director of Administration Tom Harp said a maintenance shop, carpenter shop, break room and a storage room where wheelchair and bed parts are kept tested positive for asbestos. The carcinogen was not airborne in any of the rooms, but all of the areas were sealed off to prevent further contamination.

Asbestos was also found in a key loading bay where food is loaded and stored at the Upper Nazareth Township facility, county Director of Public Works Steve DeSalvo said. The loading bay, which is critical to the building’s operation, is still open. No asbestos was found in the coolers, but more tests are being performed in that part of the building, the officials said.

“We’re trying to make sure we’re covering all of our bases,” Harp said.

Asbestos complaints from county workers have been an ongoing problem for the county. The concerns led Northampton County Controller Steve Barron to contact the Environmental Protection Agency, which started an investigation. While the law library at the Northampton County Courthouse has been closed off because of asbestos, no fines or penalties have been levied against the county to date, Stoffa said.

At Thursday night’s Northampton County Council meeting, members of an employees safety committee grilled the administration on the lack of progress they’ve seen.

Employees are still working in areas where asbestos was found, and they wondered how much risk residents at the nursing home are in considering food is shuttled through the area.

“At times, employees said it was like a snow globe,” said David Kaesler, a safety committee member who works in the contaminated area, on the amount of dust in the area.

Before the meeting, Barron said he informed the county of worker’s concerns about asbestos in that part of Gracedale back in 2010, and complaints had been filed years earlier. He criticized Stoffa for a lack of leadership in handling the issue.

“It should have been addressed long before now,” Barron said.

It was unclear exactly how much asbestos was found in these areas. The tests are being performed by SSM Group Inc., the county’s hazardous material consultant. Dan Gensemer, who has been the county’s lead contact with the engineering firm, was not available to comment Thursday, and a woman who answered the phone at SSM said he would be out until Monday.

DeSalvo said the county’s experts have advised him the amount of asbestos dust found at the site is insignificant. While Stoffa said the county is taking the asbestos problem seriously, he said the tests to date have not found the carcinogen at levels that would cause serious concerns under federal regulations.

“For someone to suggest we haven’t taken it seriously, it’s just not true,” Stoffa said.

Stoffa said asbestos was once commonly used as a building material and most older buildings probably have some asbestos in them as a result.

“It’s not like you’re working in an asbestos mine,” Stoffa said of the areas shuttered in Gracedale.

It’s believed that the asbestos in the basement was at least partially spread when an employee cut about six fire-proof doors in half in order to fit them into a dumpster somewhere between eight and 15 years ago. The doors had asbestos cores, which created the fibers found in at least some of the rooms, Stoffa said.

In a letter to county council, Stoffa said the county has spent $801,464 on testing for and removing hazardous materials over the last six years. That includes $432,800 in 2011, according to the letter.

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