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Asbestos scare closes school

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 18, 2008

HAY RIVER - An asbestos scare closed a Hay River high school almost all of last week.

However, testing found no sign of the hazardous material and Diamond Jenness secondary school is scheduled to reopen Feb. 18, according to Michael McLeod, the minister of Public Works and Services.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Pipe wrapping at Diamond Jenness Secondary School suspected of containing asbestos. Tests, however, proved negative. - Photo courtesy of the Department of Public Works and Services

The concerns arose when a Public Works and Services maintenance worker was checking heating pipes on the Feb. 9 to 10 weekend.

McLeod said the worker noticed a small amount of material on a ceiling tile below an elbow in a pipe where insulating wrap had become damaged.

There was concern the loose material may have been asbestos.

Principal Greg Storey was informed of the finding on Monday morning, Feb. 11.

"They felt there was a health concern from what they saw," Storey said.

That morning, Storey contacted officials from the department and the Workers' Compensation Board on the issue.

The principal said, at the time, no one could say the school was safe and he decided to send everyone home, staff and students included, late that morning.

The school has approximately 360 students and staff.

It was originally thought the closure would be for a day or two.

Testing was done on air quality and the material itself, McLeod said.

"I'm quite happy to see there were no contaminants in the air and the students were not put at risk," he added.

McLeod said there are 115 pipe elbows in the school, adding that samples were taken from all of them for testing.

Asbestos was sometimes used in buildings of Diamond Jenness' vintage, which opened in 1973, the minister said.

"We have to take precautions," he said.

Asbestos has been linked to cancer and lung problems.

All 115 pipe elbows on water and heating pipes in the school were checked last week. The wrapping on 14 elbows was replaced when cracks were found. All the elbows were also sprayed with encapsulating glue.

A Workers' Compensation Board official and the Public Works and Services' asbestos co-ordinator visited the school Thursday to ensure the work was done properly.

As of Thursday, McLeod said the department had completed all the tests it needed to do, but was planning even more testing late last week.

Parent Michele Stephens, who has three children at the school, said she was alarmed about the potential of asbestos in the building.

She wants to see the test results before sending her children back to the school.

"You've spooked me. Now you have to convince me it's safe," she said.

Stephens said the department should hold a public meeting or post the results somewhere so parents can see them.

"We need to know that our kids are safe," she said.

Taylor Reid, a co-president of the school's student council, is not worried about going back to the school after the asbestos scare.

"They wouldn't let us go back if there was anything wrong," the Grade 12 student said.

Reid doesn't think students are too worried about the situation, adding most were excited to get some time off school.

The 17-year-old is not worried about the four-and-half days of lost schooling.

"We'll get caught up."

The closure has raised the issue of the school's need for a mid-life retrofit.

McLeod and Education Minister Jackson Lafferty visited the school in late January to discuss the proposed project.

"There are a lot of issues with the building," said Storey.

A proposed $27-million retrofit would be for health and safety deficiencies and to bring the school up to modern building codes.