More than 30 asbestos-related employee claims had been filed against the University of Montana as of Friday over concerns about contamination discovered since December at McGill Hall.
The 32 claims could include faculty, staff or student workers.
“We have not made a determination yet in regards to contacting prior employees,” said Michele Wheeler, workers’ compensation manager at UM, in an email. “Because we have been told by experts that there is no current airborne hazard in McGill and there is no definitive data to indicate that there ever was an airborne hazard, these discussions are still underway.”
The number of claims filed in recent fiscal years was not immediately available.
In the last two weeks, UM closed two child care facilities. Neither had asbestos in tests of the air, but the McGill Hall center had concentrations of asbestos fibers on surfaces as much as 80 times higher than the federal threshold for cleanup. The Craighead Child Care facility just south of campus had much lower levels of asbestos in surface tests but was closed to be thoroughly cleaned, UM officials said. The university also evacuated the rest of McGill Hall, affecting some 70 faculty, staff, plus students.
UM officials and a certified industrial hygienist have said results show asbestos is not present in detectable levels based on air tests in McGill and air tests in the Craighead Child Care facility. Craighead will move to the College of Education on Monday.
UM officials and consultants have stressed surface asbestos does not correlate to a health hazard. A university consultant said mucous generally washes asbestos out of the digestive tract, but if it remains, it can cause lesions.
The carcinogen can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma if inhaled, but latency periods can run 10 to 40 years.
At a meeting last week, a consultant said the entire Montana University System is paying attention to the situation in Missoula.
The relocation and closure at UM will bring immediate costs and possibly future health care expenses, and it is prompting UM officials to review asbestos management protocols.
The immediate expenses include testing for asbestos and analysis of the results, reimbursing parents for children’s winter gear sequestered in McGill and purchasing new furniture and toys for the child care facilities.
Last Wednesday, cost estimates for work in McGill were not yet available because the extent of the cleanup had yet to be determined. But Paul Lasiter, UM vice president for operations and finance, said the university could tap a couple of different funds and might also seek support outside its own general fund.
“Regardless of where the funds are coming from, we’re committed to making McGill Hall a safe place for our employees and students to work and learn,” Lasiter said. He sent the email prior to the relocation of Craighead child care.
A discovery of loose asbestos in McGill in December subsequently led to more investigations of the old building and a finding of degradation of material with asbestos in a tunnel that’s difficult to reach.
It isn’t clear if the degradation of materials UM saw in McGill Hall, built in 1953, is isolated, but UM officials have noted they may start to see similar situations in aging buildings.
UM did not conduct regular asbestos inspections on campus. As a result of the current findings, university officials note the campus is revising its asbestos protocols to be proactive.
Parents are requesting routine testing so the high surface contamination detected in the preschool does not reoccur. Faculty and staff also want their areas tested.
Asbestos, long used as an insulator, is present on other Montana campuses, as well as in schools and other public and private buildings in Montana. But the abrupt preschool closure, subsequent building evacuation and review of management protocols at UM so far have not prompted a wider assessment of asbestos management plans across the state.
Kevin McRae, spokesman for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said management for asbestos remains a responsibility of professionals at the campus level. He also said campuses work together.
“We have cross-campus, system-wide collaboration to make sure that our practices and procedures at the campus level are up to date,” McRae said.
At least at UM, an online search for asbestos management turns up a 2009 operations and maintenance plan. The plan mentions the Clapp Building, managed for asbestos, and work tunnels in Corbin/Brantly, but it did not note McGill Hall.
McRae also said the Commissioner’s Office does not have emergency funds for situations such as a building closure related to public health concerns.
“UM is going to have to prioritize and manage its facilities within existing budgets,” McRae said. ” … When any public sector or private sector entity that is in the business of serving the public has a facility need, they don’t go to the Commissioner of Higher Education or the state saying ‘fix it.'”
He said the Commissioner’s Office would provide support in communication.
UM officials have said the campus will take responsibility for the situation and the preschool students. The flagship has directed parents to its risk manager, Jason Sloat.
Sloat encouraged parents of preschool children to contact him. He said he will collect pertinent information, and if appropriate, initiate the claims process and submit it to the risk management and tort defense division of the Montana Department of Administration.
He also said UM was preserving preschool attendance records related to the situation and is making test results public.
Friday, UM President Seth Bodnar announced cleanup would begin at McGill that day and the building likely would be reoccupied by the end of the month.
Spokeswoman Paula Short said the preschool area there would remain closed for the time being.
UM noted most surface tests from Craighead child care came back below a federal cleanup threshold of 5,000 asbestos fibers per square centimeter, but some came back higher. UM said Friday it was relocating the Craighead facility in order to conduct a thorough cleaning, and not because of health concerns.