The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an order on July 20 stating that Paul McKee Jr.’s Northside Regeneration LLC has to clean up any of the asbestos-containing material that got out into the neighborhoods as a result of the fire at the historic Clemens Mansion on July 12.
EPA officials reported on Tuesday that they had found asbestos in the debris samples they collected around the mansion, located at 1849 Cass Ave.
At a neighborhood association meeting on Thursday evening, EPA officials announced their clean-up order and told residents that McKee, the owner of the mansion, has “agreed verbally” to clean up the contamination.
However, some residents expressed concern that McKee would not actually follow through. The Clemens Mansion was among many properties he owns in North St. Louis city that he’s allowed to deteriorate for a decade or more, they said.
“He has not kept a single promise ever,” said community organizer Jessica Payne. “It doesn’t seem to matter what we do or what we give him, he’s never been held accountable. So I don’t trust that he’s going to follow these orders. How do you ensure these actions?”
John Frey, an on-scene coordinator with the EPA, responded that if McKee doesn’t follow the EPA’s legal order, then the federal agency has the authority to step in and do it on his behalf. And then they would charge him for it.
“We don’t want to spend taxpayers’ dollars on something that this corporation did,” Frey said. “We expect him to do it and they do it under our supervision – knowing that at any moment, we could say that we don’t like what you’re doing and we can take over the work and then charge him for that. No one wants that because the federal government is not cheap.”
One woman asked who was going to pay for the clean-up. EPA officials said that most often it’s the responsible party, or Northside Regeneration in this case. However, they are just beginning those negotiations.
“There are different formulas, and it gets complicated at times,” David Bryan, EPA spokesman, told the residents.
He later told the American that the city would never have to pay for the remediation. Payment is negotiated between the EPA and McKee, he said.
Residents also asked about the timeline for the remediation.
Frey said they just started negotiations with McKee today. NorthSide Regeneration has to submit a work plan that the EPA will review, and they are hoping to receive that by the weekend.
Frey said they will “fast track” their review, and hopefully the work will begin next week. EPA will review his contractors to make sure they are capable of doing the work, he said. McKee has to submit a quality assurance plan, which ensures that all samplings are done correctly. He also has to have a health and safety plan for his workers.
What to do before the clean-up starts?
Some residents were concerned that the air could be contaminated with the fire’s remains. The EPA has set up nine air-monitoring stations, which detect asbestos fibers in the air. In their first day of testing, they found no airborne particles. They will continue monitoring until Wednesday.
Frey said that he worked on at numerous disaster sites – from the Joplin, Mo. tornado to hurricanes.
“There’s only been one time out of thousands of air samples that we’ve ever found an asbestos fiber,” Frey said. “This could prove me wrong, but right now I feel pretty good about what’s going on out there.”
Thomas Zink, senior medical advisor to the health department and the mayor, said that the EPA’s preliminary results should give the people some “peace of mind.”
“The chances of you having any exposure of any significance, in my medial opinion, is negligible,” Zink said.
Zink said the most important thing is not to touch the debris.
“If you have a bunch of this debris and it’s in your backyard, and you want your kids and dogs to go outside, we’ll put you at the top of the list for clean up,” Zink said. “But don’t clean it up yourself. Leave it alone.”
Bryan said that if residents have already used a vacuum or broom to clear out the dust inside, then they should put the broom and the vacuum filter in a bag and seal it. The clean-up crew will dispose of them.
If there is dust inside the house, Bryan said the easiest way to get rid of it is with a damp paper towel. The towels should again be put it in a sealed bag.
One resident asked if mowing the lawn would stir stuff asbestos and lead to long-term exposure. Frey said that if residents mowed, they probably did break up those fibers that are in the grass.
“Whether they are going to jump out and get you, I can’t tell you that,” Frey said. “So far the sampling has shown we haven’t found any fibers. Right now, we know that you are living your life and we’re not seeing anything at the moment.”
Frey said the clean-up crew is going to pick up all the visible asbestos, vacuum surfaces and wipe down things. Then when they think that they have it clean, they’re going to come in and do activity based sampling.
“We’re going to put people and workers in suits and make them and run around and mow the grass with a filter attached to their body,” Frey said. “They are going to do things that mimic everyday life. They are going to see if they find fibers. If they do, then we know we still have an issue.”
Melba Moore, the head of the city’s health department, addressed one of the group’s concerns about the department’s initial response. She heard that a resident called city health department and the health official indicated that there was “nothing that we could do.”
“That was a miscommunication,” she said. “I take personal responsibility for that. I apologize for that. It shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again.”
She said that on July 12, one of their investigators went to the site.
“That person reported to his manager and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’” Moore said. “The manager immediately reached out partners at the state and EPA. In the absence of technical assistance and expertise and resources, that’s what we do.”
At the meeting, the health department was handing out surveys to residents. Moore said they will soon have a number listed on their website where residents can call with questions.
“We are not leaving, and we are going to continue to work with the EPA,” Moore said.
On Saturday, 3rd Ward Alderman Brandon Bosley and 5th Ward Committeeman Rasheen Aldridge are leading a canvassing effort in the affected neighborhoods to relay information that was shared in the community meeting. Those interested in canvassing can meet at 10:30 a.m. at 1540 N. 17th St. on Saturday.