BARRE — City councilors were told during an emergency meeting Wednesday night that when it comes to gear potentially contaminated by asbestos in a December fire, doing nothing probably isn’t an option, doing something could cost $235,000, and where that money will come from is anybody’s guess.
Less than 24 hours after learning the city’s $10.5 million budget request went down in flames, councilors met with the chief and assistant chief of their Fire Department and three others with special expertise whom they have asked to collectively craft a recommendation for their consideration Tuesday.
At issue is a concern that firefighters’ turnout gear and other porous equipment — from high-pressure hoses to straps for items such as helmets and self-contained breathing apparatus — were contaminated during and after the Dec. 20 fire at Houle Brothers Granite plant on South Front Street.
City officials belatedly learned there was a significant amount of a rare asbestos material in the facility, and its fibers likely rained down on firefighters when they ripped into the roof to keep the blaze from spreading and assisted in “overhaul” efforts later in the day.
All of that equipment has been cleaned to the best of the department’s ability and remains in service because, Chief Tim Bombardier noted, “shutting the doors of the firehouse” isn’t really an option.
However, Bombardier has pitched a plan to replace all of that equipment at a projected cost of $235,000. Roughly half — nearly $115,000 — would replace 40 sets of turnout gear being used by the department’s 17 full-time firefighters and members of its call force and cadet program. The balance would cover the cost of equipment — most notably cloth fire hoses.
Heading into Wednesday’s meeting, Bombardier had indicated there really wasn’t any other option, because the personal protective equipment couldn’t be tested for the presence of asbestos without being destroyed and no one would clean it and certify that it was asbestos-free.
“I believe, based on everything I know at this point, that we need to replace our porous gear,” Bombardier said. “I haven’t heard anything to date that would make me change that opinion.”
Moments later Fred Satink, loss control specialist for the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, offered what might be a reasonable alternative — at least with respect to the turnout gear. He said he had spoken with one out-of-state firm earlier in the day that performs precisely that sort of cleaning.
According to Satink, the “advanced cleaning” process, which adheres to National Fire Protection Association standards, costs $81 per coat or pair of pants. Once the cleaning is complete, he said, the company sends samples of the garments to an independent lab for analysis using a nondestructive test. That analysis, he said, costs $325 per garment, and it would be up to the city to decide how many to test.
“This is a fairly reasonable option to consider, and I would encourage you to do that,” Satink told the council.
Satink said he did not know whether the company could clean hoses and other equipment. Bombardier said he would look into that, determine whether it would cost extra to ship what might be viewed as hazardous material, and conduct a cost-benefit analysis in advance of next week’s council meeting.
Although there appear to be two options, councilors were told that doing nothing isn’t one of them, given both the volume and the rare mix of asbestos material in the Houle Brothers plant.
“Some response is warranted,” Satink said. But he sought to quell concerns that firefighters and the people they come in contact with on a daily basis are in any real jeopardy.
“Walking around in gear that may have marginal level of contamination really isn’t an exposure concern in my judgment,” he said.
Troy Hobson, a consultant the city hired after Bombardier learned in mid-January that firefighters from Barre and several surrounding departments were exposed to asbestos at the fire scene, and Scott Meyer, who works for the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, agreed.
However, both Hobson and Meyer said it had been nearly three decades since they had seen the amount and type of asbestos that was presumably used for fireproofing and insulation when the Houle Brothers plant was built.
According to Hobson, the material contained an unusually high concentration of amosite — a brown asbestos that is mined in South Africa. It was once a common construction material but is now banned in most countries due to health concerns. Hobson said 75 percent of the insulation material at the Houle plant was asbestos and roughly one-third of that was amosite.
“We don’t see that a lot in Vermont,” he said.
Councilors agreed to postpone a decision until they are presented with a formal recommendation next week. And, based on Wednesday’s discussion, they haven’t ruled out legal action against Houle Brothers’ insurance company to help foot the bill.
Councilor Paul Poirier said that should include the other departments that responded to the fire, which have been kept abreast of the situation by Bombardier.
The city’s own insurance excludes asbestos-related claims, according to Mayor Thomas Lauzon, and City Manager Steve Mackenzie confirmed Thursday that Houle Brothers’ insurance company has indicated it would not cover the cost of replacing gear and equipment.
According to Mackenzie, the threshold question before the council is what steps should be taken to remediate a potential health risk. He predicted it would take far longer to get a definitive answer on how the fix will be paid for.
No matter what the council decides, Mackenzie said it would likely be several weeks before the gear is cleaned, replaced or a combination of both. Once that happens, he said, the public safety building, which has been tested and declared “asbestos safe,” would be thoroughly cleaned — a process that likely will require firefighters to stay at the BOR ice arena on Seminary Hill for several days.
Lauzon said the city has erred on the side of caution — testing the public safety building, cleaning and testing fire apparatus, and testing all three ambulances even though only one responded to the fire at Houle Brothers. The room at Spaulding High School that is used by students enrolled in the Fire Department’s cadet program was also tested. None of the tests has revealed cause for concern.
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