BARRE — Emergency personnel who fought a late-December fire at a local granite plant apparently were exposed to a rare form of asbestos, though they didn’t learn about it until weeks later.
Mayor Thomas Lauzon said Thursday he’s not happy about the way the information was relayed. But he said he’s satisfied the city moved swiftly to deal with the issue while alerting other departments that fought the fire at Houle Brothers Granite plant Dec. 20.
“Our first concern is the first responders,” said Lauzon, who learned about the asbestos during a closed-door meeting of the City Council on Tuesday night and has since met with City Manager Steve Mackenzie and Chief Tim Bombardier to discuss it further.
A once-common building material, asbestos is harmless unless it is disturbed. Once airborne, its fibers have been linked to increased risk of lung disease and cancer.
Lauzon said he was troubled that the city didn’t learn about the presence of asbestos in the building until January, weeks after the fire.
According to Lauzon, Bombardier immediately reached out to the chiefs of other departments that responded to the Houle Brothers fire, while enlisting an asbestos remediation specialist.
“I’m absolutely convinced that we’re doing everything appropriately under the circumstances,” he said.
Cross-contamination is the primary concern, according to Lauzon, who said firefighters were wearing self-contained breathing apparatus while battling the blaze but likely left the building with asbestos fibers clinging to their turnout gear.
“The likelihood that the turnout gear is contaminated is high,” he said, noting the department is taking precautions to store the gear, which is still being used, while looking into replacing it.
According to Lauzon, that will be an expensive proposition, and the city is considering filing a claim to cover the cost with Houle Brothers’ insurance company. That possibility, he said, was the subject of Tuesday night’s executive session.
Bombardier said he expected to have a price for replacing the turnout gear and other nonporous equipment — from straps for air tanks to radio cases — today.
He said the city didn’t have the luxury of taking that personal protective equipment immediately out of service but should move to replace it as soon as possible.
“Nobody will clean it, and nobody will certify that it’s … not contaminated,” he said.
Lauzon declined to comment when asked how the city learned there was cause for concern.
“I can’t get into it at this time,” he said. “But I was … disappointed in how we found out about it, and I’m extremely disappointed in the speed in which we found out about it.”
The asbestos at the Houle Brothers plant was rare, according to Lauzon, who said fibers were released when firefighters made two “trench” cuts in the roof to keep the fire from spreading.
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