By Rob Peterson
Now that the first phase of masonry work is complete on two sections of the east wing building at the Mill, there’s not much work happening on the exterior of the building. Inside, however, is abuzz with critical environmental cleanup work. There is still another year and a half of masonry work to do.
The first phase of cleanup was handled by Kalamazoo County after it acquired the property in tax foreclosure in 2013. “We believed it was in the best interest of the public to remove some contaminants that were discovered,” said County Treasurer Mary Balkema. “We also removed two wastewater treatment clarifiers along Portage Creek, which we did to protect citizens and property values.”
After Vicksburg native Chris Moore bought the buildings with plans to redevelop them into a multi-use facility, Frederick Construction as the general contractor hired DeLisle Associates of Portage to ensure safe buildings for future occupants as construction continues. The company’s work at the Mill is currently focused on removing asbestos and lead-based paint.
“Bringing the mill property back to life is not just about creating a special place, it’s about creating a safe environment, both inside and outside the building,” said Moore. “It’s going to take some extra effort, but we’re here to do this the right way.”
At the time of construction, asbestos was the most commonly used fireproofing material. Since the primary product was paper, it made sense to use it liberally throughout the building. The use of asbestos was discontinued in the 1970s when its deadly health consequences became more widely known. As the building was added onto and modified over the decades, new walls were constructed over areas that contained the dangerous material. Now that those walls are being demolished as part of The Mill project, asbestos buried there for years is being exposed.
Mark DeLisle, CEO of DeLisle Associates, sees his job as being an educator; at the beginning of the process he trained all contractors and their employees on “site-specific awareness training” so that they are able to identify potential sources of asbestos during demolition. If they uncover material that they suspect might contain asbestos, they immediately cease work on that area. DeLisle’s onsite employee will carefully take a sample back to their lab on Sprinkle Road, and they will get results the same day. “I can’t – and won’t even try to – identify asbestos by sight,” said DeLisle.
If the material is discovered to contain asbestos, a separate contractor is brought in by the building owner to remove it safely. “I know the contractors and their abilities, but having me hire them would be like having the fox oversee the chickens. Their allegiance needs to be to the building owner.” DeLisle ensures that they have a current license and often advises on who might best be suited for a particular task. But the ultimate hiring decision is not his.
“The really dangerous parts (of asbestos removal) are complete – except for the roof,” said DeLisle. “The building is covered by concrete slabs with a coating of asbestos tar, and the roof is built on top of that.” These slabs will need to be removed one at a time to ensure the safety of workers and surrounding residents. He said they are still thinking of efficient ways to accomplish this.
The other major cleanup effort currently underway at The Mill is the removal of lead-based paint, another health hazard discontinued in the 1970s. The work is hindered by the need to remove the paint so as to not damage the brick or wood underneath. It is not only a matter of appearance; The Mill project is depending on historic tax credits, which require the final product to comply with strict guidelines. “We test a method of paint removal on a sample area, and if it looks good, we call in the State Historic Preservation Office staff to approve it,” said DeLisle.
They tested a variety of paint removal methods, including blasting the walls with walnut shells, corn husks, and even dry ice. The best combination of efficiency, safety, and quality of finish for the bricks came from using a low-silica industrial abrasive.
The workers removing the lead-based paint operate in teams of three: two to blast the paint off the walls and one to reposition the equipment so that there is no down time between sections of blasting. They wear special masks that bring in fresh outside air; meanwhile, the air inside the building is sucked out and cleaned in a HEPA filter. All of the contaminated material is bagged and taken to a special landfill that is capped to keep it from escaping into the groundwater. “We don’t need to move the problem from one place to another,” said DeLisle.
After the blasting is complete, the interior is vacuumed with an industrial-sized vacuum. To test the air quality, DeLisle’s team uses a leaf blower to agitate any dust on the floor. If the dust tests positive for lead-based paint, the interior is vacuumed again. “We not only monitor the air inside and outside the building, we monitor the workers themselves,” said DeLisle. “We have to track everything; data will always work against you if you don’t have it.”
It’s a slow process, but to protect the environment and the public health, it is a necessary step, according to DeLisle. When finished, a formerly vacant, blighted, and contaminated property will be put back into use.
“It’s really cool to be a part of this project,” said DeLisle. “How many families did the mill provide for over the years? And now it’s going to provide for more.”