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Plans to make Main Street Lancaster the local hub for Native American studies have been delayed with the discovery of asbestos in a key building.
City Administrator Helen Sowell on Monday confirmed that asbestos has been detected in the former Badcock furniture store building, 119 S. Main St., that will now serve as the home for University of South Carolina Lancaster’s Native American Studies program.
The city bought the downtown building in October for $188,000. It was being leased for use as The Artisans Center, which was open from 2009 until September 2011.
Plans are for USCL to use the space to display its extensive Catawba Indian pottery and archive collections, to feature classrooms and to host lectures and other special events.
The move is part of the effort to turn Lancaster into a “college town.”
Sowell said about nine or 10 city construction workers had spent three days in the building late last year, preparing it for its transition. Work included taking down interior walls and leveling the floors.
It was then that workers suspected – by sight – that the building might contain asbestos, Sowell said.
The city had the building tested, which showed that flooring did contain asbestos. Sowell said it was then reported to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The building is now being inspected by a third party. After that, air monitoring and abatement will take place.
The plan is to now have USCL occupy the building by July 1.
“There is asbestos in there and we are moving forward with getting it abated at this time,” Sowell said. “It will add some time because I had hoped to be in by spring.”
Were city workers exposed?
The Lancaster News received an anonymous call about two weeks ago in which the person said city workers had been working in the Main Street building as recently as early February.
The caller, who didn't give his name, said he and other city construction workers had been possibly exposed to the asbestos and asked why did he have to be responsible for removing it.
The caller said he’s been placed in harm’s way.
“We need our jobs but we can’t work like this,” the caller said. “This ain’t right. We’re not slaves.”
On Tuesday, Sowell said that after the asbestos was suspected, city construction crews did not return to that building. The city also allowed all the workers to get medically examined, which confirmed that none of them were affected, Sowell said.
“I can promise you no one has worked in that building since Dec. 15,” she said. “There are no workers in our city who have been harmed.”
Dr. John Catalano, USCL’s dean, said many buildings in Lancaster have similar issues, including some on the Hubbard Drive campus. Some of the buildings date to the mid-1960s.
“It has taken a little longer than we had hoped, but now is the time to make sure that the whole building is asbestos-free,” he said. “We are confident that everyone who will work in or visit this facility will be in a beautiful and healthy setting.”
USCL and city of Lancaster staff wanted to see the building occupied by the end of April.
Despite the setback, Catalano is still optimistic about the project. He said archives and classrooms, as well as faculty, will be in place before the start of the upcoming fall semester.
“It is an exciting joint venture between the city of Lancaster and USCL that I hope is just one more step toward Lancaster becoming a college town,” he said.
What is asbestos?
According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, asbestos is the common name for a group of naturally occurring minerals made up of long, thin fibers. It’s very strong and resistant to stress or forces that might tear it apart. It’s also heat-resistant.
Asbestos can be found in a number of building products, including heating system insulation, vinyl floor tiles, ceiling tiles, and roofing paper and shingles, among other items.
When materials containing asbestos are disturbed during renovations or demolitions, people close by may inhale the dangerous fibers into their lungs. Its fibers can be toxic to humans if inhaled.
Contact reporter Jesef Williams at (803) 283-1152