Local News

Mayor Doesn’t Know If City Workers Exposed To Asbestos

By Gordon Hopkins

“I could not tell you if they were or not.”
That was Fairbury Mayor Spencer Brown’s response when asked if anyone has been inside the now-defunct municipal power plant without wearing a respirator. Because of the presence of asbestos within the building, the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (NDEE) has recommended that no one enter the building without a respirator.
However, Mayor Brown also emphasized this was a precautionary measure.
“Understand this is precaution. Not because we have done an air quality analysis,” the mayor told FJN. “I also cannot tell you if the asbestos exceeds air quality limits.”
FJN spoke to the mayor at length on the issue last week via direct messaging on social media.
Asbestos in Construction
Because asbestos is resistant to heat and corrosion, it has been commonly used in construction materials. However, asbestos is also a known carcinogen and exposure can lead to lung diseases, including lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis, a serious, progressive, long-term, non-cancer disease of the lungs. Disease symptoms may take many years to develop following exposure.
The mayor noted that asbestos is common in older structures and not necessarily something to be worried about, ”My house was built in 1915, I have asbestos in it.”
According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), “Asbestos fibers may be released into the air by the disturbance of asbestos-containing material during product use, demolition work, building or home maintenance, repair, and remodeling. In general, exposure may occur only when the asbestos-containing material is disturbed or damaged in some way to release particles and fibers into the air.”
Industrial Engineering Solutions
In 2022, the City of Fairbury contracted with a California-based company, Industrial Engineering Solutions (IES), to remove various equipment from the power plant, such as turbines and generators, as well as to drain and demolish the nearby oil tank, which also contained asbestos. Although not specified in the contract, James Daniels, the owner of IES, told the city via email, “And any asbestos has to be hazmatted that is around the turbine ring, we are responsible for that.”
Mayor Brown claims IES did not do that and disturbed the asbestos within the building.
The exact dates IES worked on the building are unknown. When asked, the mayor said, “I don’t have accurate dates available.”
When asked for a “rough estimate,” the mayor responded, “I don’t like approximates, sorry.”
While exact dates are not available, city council president Kelly Davis indicated it was likely some time in December of 2022. Davis told FJN, “I was driving by right after they (IES) left town, and it looked like the door was ajar, so I stopped to check it. I stuck my head inside and hollered to see if someone was in there working. Then, I texted the mayor to have someone get it locked.”
The mayor thought IES may have hired some local citizens to help remove equipment from the power plant but did not know the details or if they followed any safety protocols, “I believe they had some locals, I don’t know the ins-and-outs of their staff.”
The NDEE has forwarded the matter to the EPA’s criminal division.
Asbestos Inspection Survey
On February 10, 16 and 17 of this year, an Asbestos Management Inspector conducted an asbestos inspection survey of the power plant. A report was sent to the city on February 23.
FJN has obtained a copy of this report, which states a lab identified asbestos in all 23 samples the inspector took. Asbestos insulation was found on numerous pipes and in loose debris throughout the building.
As noted previously, no air quality analysis was done. When asked why, Mayor Brown said, “To my knowledge it wasn’t a recommendation.”
Masks Versus Respirators
The city met with a representative of NDEE in April. On April 26, 2023, a notice was placed on the door of the power plant, requiring anyone entering the building to sign a log-in sheet. Prior to that, no log was kept of people entering the building. A new protocol was put in place requiring that no one enter the building without a respirator.
A representative of the Public Health Division of the Department of Health and Humans Services (DHHS), told FJN that a respirator is needed to protect against asbestos exposure, “Masks, for example an N95, will provide some level of protection. The problem with them is that they do not provide an airtight seal around the mouth and nose and could allow asbestos fibers to enter the lungs. Respirators with the proper cartridges, provide an airtight fit and filter out asbestos fibers. If the workers wore some sort of mask they had at least some form of protection. It would be impossible to determine what the fiber level was during the decommissioning of those pieces.”
That representative suggested to FJN in a telephone conversation that if anyone has been inside the building without a respirator, “It wouldn’t be a bad idea to go to see your doctor to get a chest X-ray.”
City Workers
While the power plant is no longer in operation, there is a control room that is still used on occasion. It is expected to be phased out within two years.
Prior to the new protocols set April 26, there was no requirement for city workers to wear respirators inside the building, although the mayor doubts anyone has been inside.
“I can’t tell you if any city staff or what city staff was in the building before then,” said Mayor Brown. “There was no log sheet, and generally no reason to be in the building.”
The city also stores the Christmas decorations that are placed around the downtown square over the holidays in the power plant building. FJN asked for the names of the city workers that put up and took down the decorations last year. The mayor answered, “I don’t have the names.”
FJN then emailed the City Line Department and asked for the name of the city workers. The Line Department did not respond but, the next day, Mayor Brown emailed FJN and asked the paper not to contact city staff again.
“I need to remind you that in the absence of the city administrator, I assume those duties. That includes the position of Public Relations Officer,” the Mayor wrote, “In order to provide accurate information for you to use, please refrain from questioning members of staff. If you do not feel like you are getting what you need out of me, then please use the public records request form online.”
In order to determine if any city workers have been inside the power plant unprotected, Mayor Brown said, “I would have to survey the staff. I would assume, someone, at some time, in the past history of the power plant, entered without a mask.”
FJN asked the mayor if he intended to conduct such a survey, he responded, “For what reason why would I do that (sic)?”

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