In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, officials are still waiting on tests to determine if the Sinclair meat packing plant contains serious amounts of asbestos.
Massive flooding in June of 2008, following nearly a decade of abandonment, raised the first asbestos concerns, as thousands of Iowa businesses, devastated by flooding, closed their doors permanently. The Sinclair property, bought by the city for $2 million in 2006, with the Hall-Perrine Foundation contributing half that amount, is still on that list of abandoned properties which have been neither repurposed nor demolished.
A fire in July of 2009 heightened those asbestos concerns. The city said at the time that asbestos was not a concern, based on an engineering firm report. Later, it contradicted itself, saying the statement was a result of miscommunication with the firm, the Howard R. Green Company, which found loose insulation containing some asbestos in six different locations.
The most recent fire, which broke out on Tuesday, Dec. 15, has residents wondering who to believe; the city (which reports no threat), or the engineering firm. The fire, which officials first decided not to fight, and than later dumped millions of gallons of water on, presents its own contradictions, with fire officials saying the water – which has not successfully put out the fires – is nonetheless a good way to keep the asbestos hazard down as smoke continues to swirl, laden with debris. Temperatures that are well below zero and a wind chill factor have also hampered active firefighting.
Once known officially as Farmstead Foods, and located at 1600 Third St. SE, the building and nearby structures are all involved in the fire, and demolition crews are advancing on the blaze by taking down walls and filling in basements with the debris to provide secure footing for the heavy equipment being used to ‘disconnect’ 125,000 square feet of three-story structures, each with its own basement.
The Linn County Health Department continues to warn nearby residents, and those in the path of the smoke, to limit their outside exposure, particularly those whose health is compromised by age or respiratory-related illnesses. This addresses the smoke issue from burning walls, wooden beams, and stored corn (which officials say may smolder for months), but nothing is being said about asbestos particles released by the fire.
Asbestos, widely used during most the last century in building insulation, floor and ceiling (acoustical) tiles, tile glues and boiler and pipe-wrap, to name a few, is the primary cause of asbestosis and mesothelioma. The Sinclair buildings are, as a whole, almost 100 years old.
Contracting asbestosis, a respiratory disease, generally requires long exposure to asbestos. Mesothelioma requires only a single exposure, or a single inhalation (or ingestion) of as little as one fiber. Then, after two to five decades, the progressively invasive tumor has destroyed so much vital tissue that the usual prognosis is a year, or slightly more, to live.
In spite of reassurances to the contrary, residents should be aware the Linn County Public Health Department does not have an asbestos professional on staff, or the equipment to monitor the air for asbestos. It does have equipment for measure airborne particulates, and this is the source of the warnings to residents to remain inside.
The city was paid $3.5 million for the July fire, through city insuror Selective Insurance Co., but a plan to demolish the buildings entirely – slated for 2010 – will cost between $20 and $100 million, or at least ten times as much as the insurance settlement. The city hopes to recover the demolition cost through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) flood relief funds for the 2008 flood, and then redevelop the area, a process that could take up to three years.
Sources: KCRG-TV, Cedar Rapids Gazette