Asbestos contamination has forced the Towoac Recreation Center to close and triggered an Environment Protection Agency cleanup.
The 30,000-square-foot building in downtown Towaoc was built in 1964. It houses a gymnasium, pool, weight room and recreation department offices.
On Feb. 12, the Ute Mountain Ute tribal council voted to close the rec center to the public after asbestos contamination and vermiculite insulation were discovered during repair of a heat exchanger.
“We realize it is an inconvenience for the community, but it was necessary for public safety,” said Quinton Jacket, of the tribal environmental department.
On April 17, the EPA emergency response team arrived at the request of the tribe and began the cleanup process, which is expected to take several weeks, said EPA on-site coordinator Craig Myers.
A dozen workers wearing air-purifying respirators began cleanup procedures Thursday to carry out the contaminated materials. The building has been sealed off for the cleanup to prevent further contamination.
“The waste will be double-bagged and shipped to a certified disposal cell,” Myers said. “After the hazardous materials are removed, we will conduct aggressive air sampling inside the building to ensure it is safe for the public to reopen.”
Asbestos is a health hazard, especially when disturbed, because airborne fibers can be inhaled and cause respiratory problems.
The cleanup involves the entire building and the attic. Ceiling tiles with accumulated asbestos dust will be removed, and asbestos that contaminated the gym, pool area, weight room and offices will be vacuumed.
An industrial Hurricane vacuum with an attached hopper arrived Thursday and was set up outside the back of the rec center. Giant hoses were being attached from the vacuum into the attic to collect the vermiculite, a type of loose insulation in the shape of little balls. A bagger contains the material.
A sealant will then be applied to surfaces in the rec center to contain residual dust.
Toxic vermiculiteThe origin of the vermiculite product from a mine in Libby, Montana, alarmed Ute Mountain officials and prompted assistance from the EPA.
The impure Libby vermiculite is contaminated with dangerous levels of naturally occurring asbestos. But the problem was not discovered until after the contaminated insulation had been sold nationwide from 1919 to 1990. It was often sold under the Zonolite brand.
“Vermiculite mitigation and cleanup is pretty common because it is so widespread,” Myers said. “The Libby mine was the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the U.S.”
Ute Mountain Ute environmental officials discovered the problem after investigating reports of water dripping from the ceiling in the gym and pool area. The broken heat exchanger caused humidity in the building to rise dramatically, causing condensation and significant dripping.
“At first, we thought we may have a mold problem, then found old bags of Zonolite vermiculite and realized we had a bigger problem,” Jacket said.
He said it was a “big 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,” Jacket said.
About a dozen employees in the rec department were relocated to other offices. Youth programs were disrupted as well, said Wayland Plenty Holes, media director for Weenuche Smoke Signals, the tribe’s newspaper.
“Youth programs were moved outside, and games were shuffled to other courts,” he said. “Everyone has adjusted, but the community is eager to get the facility back.”
A date to reopen the rec center has not been announced, because it is unclear how long the cleanup will take. The goal is to have the facility open this summer, Ute Mountain Ute officials said.