In Martinsburg, West Virginia, a former woolen mill repurposed into a community college and county offices is being closed on December 11 to remove asbestos discovered adjacent to a skylight in the central atrium.
The asbestos was discovered as a result of an ongoing, $4.3-million roof replacement project on the former woolen mill, which was built in the early 1900s and operated until 1953, then abandoned until repurposed in the 1980s as an outlet mall. That project also fell through, and Berkeley County bought the buildings in about 2003, leasing the first floor to the Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, originally housed in Shepherd University.
The original plan was to encapsulate the asbestos in the roof in situ, but that would have required adding a third layer of roofing, which is prohibited by state building laws because the excess weight threatens building stability.
Undisturbed, asbestos is harmless, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. Disturbed, it releases microscopic fibers which can, when inhaled or ingested, cause lesions in mesothelial tissue which potentially lead to lethal tumors whose long dormancy (up to five decades or more) causes a lot of vital tissue and organ damage.
By the time most mesothelioma patients experience symptoms severe enough to send them to a doctor, the tumors are well advanced and the prognosis is, typically, a year to 18 months to live. This prognosis is only slightly altered by radical treatment protocols including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but new hope for mesothelioma patients is offered by early diagnosis via serum markers in pleural effusion fluid.
Pleural effusions (a buildup of fluid in the space between the pleura and the lungs) are common in patients with pleural mesothelioma, the most prevalent form of the disease, accounting for more than half of all mesotheliomas, and the possibility of early and definitive diagnoses via a simple laboratory test leads clinicians to hope for an eventual cure for this deadly illness.
In Martinsburg, the closing of the Dunn Building will affect county functions but protect building occupants from the dangers of mesothelioma. Least affected will be the college, which ends its fall semester on Saturday and promises to have faculty and staff accessible via e-mail in an emergency.
Most affected will be Berkeley County's planning and engineering departments, as well as the health department administrative offices, the county's ambulance service administrative division, the county fire board, the Eastern Panhandle Regional Planning Council offices, W. Virginia's university extension service, and the county assessor's and sheriff's tax collection offices.
New plans - which involve closing the building until at least December 18, relocating essential personnel and closing administrative offices - aim at removing the asbestos in a manner consistent with regulations provided by the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health. This involves encapsulating asbestos in place and removing it to a licensed hazardous waste facility, then replacing the skylight and adjacent roof afterward, followed by air sampling. Employees whose jobs are affected by the asbestos remediation will be paid for their time.
There is no report on how much the asbestos remediation emergency project will add to the already budgeted $4.3-million renovation, or the cost of closure on the county's budget.