K.I. SAWYER - Customers of Second Street Storage at K.I. Sawyer will have to wait to get their boats, recreational vehicles and other items out of winter storage until professional consultants assess the full extent of a recently discovered asbestos problem.
The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians owns buildings 421 and 422 at Sawyer -structures each measuring roughly 40,000 square-feet- where the presence of disrupted asbestos was confirmed May 1.
"The tribe is doing everything it can to expedite this and make sure everyone is safe," said Saulius Mikalonis, a Plunkett Cooney attorney representing the tribe from Bloomfield Hills.
Building 422 at K.I. Sawyer, shown here on Friday, is one of the storage buildings where the presence of disrupted asbestos was confirmed May 1. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
Mikalonis said the tribe had been leasing the buildings commercially -which are located on 6 acres between avenues H and F- since September 2010 to the Second Street temporary storage business. In February, the buildings were repossessed by the tribe after the owner fell into arrears on payments of rent and taxes.
In April, tribal officials cut off locks and pushed open frozen doors to inspect the premises. A piece of pipe fitting tape suspected to contain asbestos - later confirmed through testing - was found on the floor in one of the buildings.
"We don't know how this asbestos was removed," Mikalonis said.
Tribal officials are operating under the assumption disturbed asbestos materials are in both storage buildings.
"We don't know, but we have to assume it," Mikalonis said.
A licensed consultant contracted by the tribe is expected to assess the extent of the asbestos problem within the next week or so. The findings will determine exactly what abatement measures will be prescribed and how long that process will take.
Asbestos is regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act as a hazardous air pollutant.
Countless older buildings contain asbestos in their building materials. Undisturbed, the substance is not required to be disposed of. However, when major renovations are undertaken or when asbestos containing materials are exposed to the air that can be crumbled, pulverized or reduced to powder by hand pressure steps are taken to remove those "friable" asbestos materials.
The tribe is keeping the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality -which addresses asbestos issues on behalf of the EPA- apprised of the situation. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has also been notified.
"We've talked to all the relevant officials," Mikalonis said.
If the amount of disturbed asbestos present is significant or widespread, a specific sequence of steps to wet and dispose of the materials would be required.
"It is a complicated, time consuming and expensive process," Mikalonis said.
If the tribe does not properly remedy the situation, large fines could be imposed.
Meanwhile, the boats, recreation vehicles and other items sitting in the storage facility cannot be removed until the asbestos problem is resolved and the buildings deemed safe to occupy.
Mikalonis said the DEQ has been open to waiving a 30-day notification requirement -if the asbestos remediation process is necessary- to expedite starting the process as an emergency abatement.
In addition to discovering the presence of friable asbestos, the tribe is dealing with additional problems at the storage facility.
Civil proceedings between the tribe and Second Street Storage are continuing in Marquette County District Court, according to court officials.
Absent logs or other pertinent documents, tribal officials have been unable to determine who owns many of the items housed in the storage facility. Mikalonis said he was not sure how much property has been stored in the buildings, but characterized the number as "significant."
Tribal officials sent notices to some of the affected individuals Wednesday and were asking others to claim ownership by sending receipts, descriptions, license plate numbers and other identifying information to the tribe's insurance department in Sault Ste. Marie.
A couple of weeks after the asbestos was found, inspection of the storage buildings revealed another, potentially related, issue.
"We noticed there were copper wiring and pipes stripped from the building," Mikalonis said.
Local law enforcement officials, including Marquette County Sheriff's deputies, are investigating the theft. Tribal officials don't think anyone has been in the buildings since last fall.
Both of the structures were built in 1956 and used as hangars by the military when K.I. Sawyer was a U.S. Air Force base. The air base opened in 1956 and closed in 1995.
The tribe bought the buildings in the year 2000.
To claim items from the storage facility, write the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Insurance Department, 523 Ashmun Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783.
John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org