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Shepherd students are being relocated

March 20, 2004|By CANDICE BOSELY

The vice president of student affairs at Shepherd College said Friday that college officials knew asbestos was in the building materials used in two residence halls, but had no reason to take any action until recently.

"That problem hadn't surfaced," Sharon Kipetz said during a press conference held Friday afternoon in the College Center.

Shaw and Thacher halls will be closed for the rest of the semester because asbestos was found in the dormitories. Both dorms were built in 1970.

Although students are on spring break and expected to return Sunday, the 254 students who live in Shaw and Thacher have been asked to return at noon Monday. When they return, the students - who will not be allowed in their rooms - are to report to Miller Hall to find out where they'll be living.

Employees with Frederick, Md.-based Boggs Environmental Consultants collected samples from 18 sites within the buildings for a three-hour time period. Test results from Shaw Hall showed that two samples contained a single asbestos fiber, Kipetz said.

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"The quality of air is comparable to what we would find outside," Kipetz said. She added that she has received verbal confirmation that Thacher Hall is looking "as good as" Shaw.

College employees called affected students throughout Friday and expect to resume today. As of Friday afternoon, more than 80 students had been reached.

Kipetz said seven of the students have decided to commute from home, while 37 said they will need a new place on campus to live. Others had not yet decided what to do, she said.

Beds and furniture are being set up in the 122 on-campus living spaces that are available for students. If necessary, other students will be moved into hotels in Shepherdstown and Martinsburg, W.Va., at the college's expense.

A list is being compiled of faculty members and Shepherdstown residents who have volunteered to house students. Such arrangements especially could be important for students who do not have a car and must live within walking distance of the campus, Kipetz said.

Students who decide to move off-campus will receive a $571.83 room and board refund, plus $43.75 paid for an Ethernet connection. Students also will have the option to cancel or reduce their meal plans.

Those who opt to move into West Woods, dorms that consist of more expensive suite-style rooms, will not have to pay the difference, Kipetz said.

At the college Friday afternoon, the road leading to the dorms was blocked off with sawhorses and yellow caution tape. Stark black and red signs posted on the dorms' doors warned that asbestos is a cancer and lung disease hazard. "Authorized personnel only. Respirators and protective clothing are required in this area," the signs read.

A U-Haul truck was backed up to the front doors of Shaw Hall as workers removed students' items from the dorm, packed them in cardboard boxes and loaded the boxes onto the truck.

Items deemed to be of priority, including computers, computer discs, textbooks, notebooks, musical instruments, medical boxes, cameras, art tool boxes and Palm Pilots, will be returned to students as soon as possible. They will be decontaminated and then tested again before being returned, Kipetz said.

All of the belongings will be stored in a locked facility.

Kipetz could not say for sure when such items will be returned. Whether "soft-fiber" items, including clothes, can be returned is up to officials with Boggs, she said.

Students will not be penalized for missing classes on Monday morning and professors have been told of the situation.

"We're expecting full cooperation from the faculty," Kipetz said.

Students' responses have been positive so far, Kipetz said.

"People are really working with us, families are willing to help," she said.

Residence assistants, or RAs, have volunteered to return early from spring break to help move furniture.

The abatement process - removing the asbestos from sprayed-on ceiling material - is expected to cost as much as $2 million, Kipetz said. The work will be done this spring and summer, with the dorms to reopen for the fall semester.

No residence hall at Shepherd has had to close before, Kipetz said.

When asked whether the two dorms had been tested for asbestos before, Kipetz replied, "We really deal with things as they come forward." She said she could not say for sure if or when other buildings on campus will be tested for asbestos. College President David L. Dunlop said Thursday that it doesn't appear that any other residence halls or campus buildings contain the spray-on ceiling material.

The problem in the dorms came to light when an employee who lives on campus noticed that a dusty clump of ceiling material in Shaw Hall had fallen onto a desk. More dust was found when inspections of the building were done Wednesday.

Shaw and Thacher are three-story, Y-shaped buildings along the edge of the baseball field's outfield. As belongings were being removed from the buildings Friday, the "clink" from aluminum baseball bats could be heard as players practiced.

Asbestos - a mineral fiber once commonly used for insulation and as a fire retardant - can lead to an increased risk of cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity or lung scarring if it's inhaled in high levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site.

Small amounts of asbestos in daily life are not necessarily harmful. However, the risk increases if materials containing asbestos are disturbed, the EPA Web site said.

Dunlop said some scientists believe the actual hazard of asbestos may be exaggerated.

"It can be more of an emotional issue," he said.

A few years ago, the college replaced floor tiles containing asbestos in Knutti Hall, but that didn't present an airborne threat, Dunlop said.

Students are asked to call 1-800-344-5231 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for more information. Updates on the asbestos situation will be posted on the school's Web site, www.shepherd.edu.

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