Courtesy of Walter Hang

Activists gather outside the old Tompkins Library on Wednesday to raise concerns about the potential release of toxins with the proposed demolition.

October 18, 2018

Activists Raise Concerns About Asbestos Release From Proposed Library Demolition

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The old Tompkins County Public Library facility at 310-314 North Cayuga St. is set to be demolished, but a group of environmental activists and local residents are concerned about the release of asbestos that might result from the demolition.

The old library contains high levels of the carcinogen, which was often used as insulation in older homes. There are no known safe levels of asbestos exposure, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Walter Hang, who works with substance exposure mapping group Toxics Targeting, expressed concern that the current method of demolition will result in asbestos dust spreading into the community.

The planned demolition won’t remove asbestos prior to taking apart the building, but instead practice asbestos abatement during the demolition. Asbestos spreads easily as dust, but developers plan to suppress it through periodic spraying of water and mist, according to a press release.

However, Hang doesn’t believe this is enough.

“It would just be an unbelievable demolition disaster to knock down this building and simply try to wet down this asbestos material in an area which … is the home of thousands of people,” Hang said.

Toxics Targeting has released a coalition letter requesting Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick ’09 to require asbestos removal prior to demolition of the old library. The letter currently has over 300 signatories.

Last month, the old library was condemned by the City of Ithaca because of unsafe structural conditions, according to Hang. The building was previously slated to undergo extensive asbestos abatement, involving completely sealing the building in a wrap that prevents dust from escaping, but this plan was tabled after the condemnation.

Hang said that he wants Myrick to mandate that the developer temporarily restore parts of the building to implement the original asbestos abatement plan prior to demolition.

Travis Hyde Properties, a local renting and development company, purchased the lot in September of 2017, according to Tompkins County’s website.

Frost Travis, president of Travis Hyde Properties, said that the abatement method is the best way to deal with asbestos in a building like the old library, as it has an unstable roof and trying to stabilize it risks spreading asbestos.

Travis told The Sun that abatement during demolition was “the only method” for the situation and that the company’s structural engineers had certified that stabilizing the building first was “simply not a possibility.”

“You would be putting construction workers and abatement workers in harm’s way if you attempt to do that,” he continued. “It’s just not a viable, feasible option.”

However, Toxic Targeting claims that Delta Engineers, the consultant Travis Hyde Properties used, told the activist group that securing the roof was possible. Delta Engineers did not respond to The Sun’s requests for comment.

Chris Latreille, the public engineer who recommended the building be condemned, told The Sun that while “anything is possible,” trying to secure the building would put workers at risk.

“I accessed a small portion of the roof and I didn’t feel comfortable walking on it,” he said.

During the demolition, project and air monitoring will track air quality to detect potential asbestos. These measures follow federal and state regulation during asbestos abatement. According to EPA regulation, a structurally unsound building may be demolished without prior asbestos removal, but that the building must be “adequately wet” to prevent particle release.

Hang said that he doesn’t trust the monitoring process.

“The amount of monitoring is so meager, you can see the dust blowing up the property. You can literally see the material escaping the site,” Hang told The Sun. “There’s no requirement to do post demolition testing.”

The Cayuga Street facility was in use by the Tompkins County Public Library between 1969 and 2000, before the move to its current Green Street location, its website states. The library dates back to 1867, when circulation began out of a different building after it was purchased by Ezra Cornell.