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West Block is 'a health risk': report

By Paco Francoli
March 7th, 2005 - The West Block is "a health risk" and should have been vacated three months ago, according to an independent report commissioned by the federal government.

The extensive 300-page assessment of the historic building, obtained by The Hill Times through access to information, says West Block's exterior masonry, mechanical air systems and asbestos fireproofing are all in a "seriously deteriorating condition." It concludes that the building should have been vacated last December 2004 to limit the exposure of MPs and staff to loose asbestos fibres and crumbling masonry.

Golder Associates Ltd. was the lead contractor responsible for the report based on site inspections and surveys carried out at West Block in May, June and July of 2004.

"In light of the risk analysis and based on the balance of the information and data, we conclude that there is an important health risk for occupants at West Block and that the best strategy for ending occupant exposure is to progressively move occupants from the building as soon as reasonably achievable with 100 per cent vacancy at West Block in December 2004," says the report.

The report adds that although this is not an "emergency situation, there is no means to predict when an asbestos event will occur."

There are hundreds of people who work in the West Block on Parliament Hill, including many MPs, staffers and House employees. There is a cafeteria on the ground floor, committee rooms, and other House services.

The Department of Public Works and Government Services, which is custodian of all the buildings on Parliament Hill, received a first draft of the report last July.

The final report, obtained by The Hill Times and called Building Condition Assessment and Occupant Health & Safety Study of the Wet Block, was submitted on Dec. 17, 2004.

It notes that asbestos is "present in several forms" in the West Block and is in "poor condition, losing adhesion to the elements it was originally sprayed onto and gradually falling onto the tops of the metal pan ceilings, air duct work and other service conduits in the ceiling spaces."

The report expresses concerns that stop-gap repairs in the West Block, which have become an almost daily occurrence lately while MPs and staffers toil inside, continues to disturb asbestos and produce airborne asbestos fibres.

"The fact that asbestos fireproofing is observed to have fallen off (which creates a disturbance), and the measured effect of activity in the asbestos contaminated areas leads us to state that there is no guarantee that the occupants have not been exposed to some levels of asbestos fibres," says the report.

Golder Associates Ltd., in collaboration with several other firms, also conducted a risk analysis and found that Mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer which affects the protective membrane covering most of the body's internal organs, was considered to be the most likely illness to arise from the current potential asbestos exposure patterns in West Block. The report ruled out asbestosis and lung cancer.

"Golder concluded that there is a potential for occupants to have been exposed in the past and/or the future to low concentrations of fine asbestos fibres. This potential exposure pattern carries with it a health risk when considering Mesothelioma," says the report.

Public Works has been conducting air monitoring every day since last March. Officials say the results have consistently been within acceptable levels.

The abundance of asbestos in the West Block is due to major renovations conducted in the 1960s when it was legal to fireproof buildings with asbestos.

Golder's team also encountered many problems with the building's exterior walls, large parts of which are currently covered with scaffolding to address falling masonry. The report said such temporary repairs don't cut it anymore.

"Attempts to manage material failure on the building via scaling and localized re-pointing is no longer adequate to protect the public," says the report which then goes on to list a number of problems with the mortar on the building.

"It's losing adherence to the stone and the backing mortar behind it, and becoming loose and in many areas falling out, leaving open joints... Loose pieces of mortar and stone were observed all around the building on towers, chimneys, high roof areas and in large areas of walling. Also of major concern is the condition of the inner core of the wall where it is subject to continued moisture saturation and accelerating deterioration through freezing and thawing," says the report.

As far as the air handling system in the building, the report concludes that it was not designed or intended for filtering out asbestos particles.

"The likelihood of failure of the air distribution system over the next 10 years is rated as highly likely and the impact assessment of such a failure is rated as critical by this study," adds the report.

West Block was originally slotted for major renovations requiring all occupants to vacate the building starting in 2008-09, based on the government's $1.5-billion, 25-year "Long-Term Vision and Plan" that will see every building in the Parliamentary precinct undergo major repairs.

But Public Works has been forced to speed up this timetable due to the ongoing problems inside West Block which officially opened in 1866.

The government's point person on this file is Liberal MP Walt Lastewka (St. Catherines, Ont.), who is Parliamentary secretary to Public Works Minister Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.).

When asked on Friday what he made of the recommendation to vacate West Block by December 2004, Mr. Lastewka said the Golder report is one of many the government is considering.

"Well, remember that a consultant's report is exactly that. It's their point of view, their gathering of information. We took the report very seriously," he said.

But Mr. Lastewka admitted that the government is "moving as fast as it can" to vacate West Block. He added that there are many factors to consider.

"We are moving as fast as we can where we can make everybody happy. It's most important that we don't disturb the proceedings of the work of the Members of Parliament who are there during [a] crucial time. The last thing you want is to be moving when you are finalizing reports or when there's lots of legislation moving through," he said.

Mr. Lastewka said he is working on a plan, which will be finalized in early May, to begin moving West Block occupants in late summer with the ultimate aim of having the entire building vacated by December 2005.

He said some MPs will be moved to temporary office space in the neighbouring Confederation and Justice Buildings.

When asked about the asbestos problem identified in the Golder report, he said Public Works has been tracking the situation "very closely" for months and that he's convinced there are no health risks for the building's occupants.

"I feel very positive from the standpoint that Public Works' environmental section has been doing tests, they still do tests, they monitor... to make sure that nobody was at risk. The law of Ontario is very specific on that," he said.

Some MPs have already taken matters into their own hands and moved themselves and their staff out of the historic building. Last fall, at least two MPs jumped ship.

Liberal MP Lui Temelkovski (Oak Ridges-Markham, Ont.) and his staff now work in the East Block, while Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy (Calgary-Now Hill, Alta.) and her staffers moved to the Confederation Building after a brick fell from an archway near her old West Block office.
The Hill Times

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