Libby Board Votes to Demolish Section of Shuttered School

By Beacon Staff

The Libby School Board voted this week to move forward with plans to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to demolish a section of the shuttered Asa Wood Elementary School that has vermiculite asbestos in the walls. The board hopes to get the project on the EPA’s 2012 cleanup list and then find a new use for the rest of the building.

“The goal is to use the building (so) that it won’t just be boarded up,” said Libby School District Superintendent K.W. Maki.

Maki said the school board voted unanimously to rip out about a quarter of the building that was built as an extension to the school in the late 1950s. But because of the addition’s location, between the main structure and the library, Maki said more of the building might need to come down. Much of that will depend on the cost of demolition and how much the EPA will cover. Asa Wood Elementary School closed in June 2011.

EPA’s Onsite Remedial Project Manager Mike Cirian said the school board hasn’t made a formal proposal to the agency, but he was aware of the school district’s desire to clean the site. Cirian said because the asbestos is inside the walls, and not exposed, it is not an immediate health risk.

“It’s kind of like a propane or gas line,” he said. “As long as the integrity is there, it’s not dangerous.”

The EPA conducts more than 100 asbestos-removal projects every year and Cirian said most are usually smaller where no demolition takes place. Cirian estimated the elementary school cleanup could take a week or two. EPA covers the costs of the cleanups with money from the W.R. Grace and Co. settlement. W.R. Grace mined asbestos-laden vermiculite, a material now known to be deadly, in the Libby area.

Maki said there could be additional costs of preparing the building for future use and he worries about where that money might come from. He planned on asking Lincoln County to waive the fee for disposing the asbestos-laden material in hopes of cutting costs.

What will happen after the demolition could be decided in the next few months. Maki said a handful of groups have already approached the school district with ideas and he hopes to meet with some of them during an upcoming school board meeting. One proposal is to create a community center at the site, taking advantage of the gymnasium and meeting rooms inside the building, and the walking path and fields outside. In a survey of area residents taken late last year, 68 percent said they would support that plan.

“That’s a good sign, because we don’t have the money to construct that, but if a group wants to use it and do something that’ll benefit the kids and the community, that would be a good thing,” Maki said.

School board member Bruce Sickler said a community center would be the best use for the former school, but he and rest of the board are open to hearing other proposals from the public.

“It would be great if someone came up with an idea that we haven’t thought of. We’d love to look at it,” he said. “The building belongs to the community and I’d like to see the community use it.”

Sickler said the sooner the building can be cleaned and a decision made about its future, the better. He worried the longer the building sits, the more likely it is to fall victim to vandalism.