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July 13, 2020

'Troubled' Maine State Cultural Building closed for upgrades, asbestos removal

Photo / Maureen Milliken The Maine State Cultural Building, at 230 State St. in Augusta, will be closed indefinitely for mechanical upgrades and asbestos removal.

The Maine State Cultural Building, which houses the state archives, library and museum, will be closed indefinitely for significant upgrades to its mechanical systems and removing asbestos that has increasingly been an issue with state employees.

The 53-year-old building has significant asbestos issues, as well as an aging mechanical infrastructure, and was described as one of the state government's "most troubled" by a state official to a legislative committee in January.

The buildings will be closed to the public "for the foreseeable future," Kyle Hadyniak, director of communications for the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, said in a news release.

The Bureau of General Services, which is overseeing the work, has hired Portland architectural and engineering firm Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions to design new mechanical systems, as well as oversee asbestos abatement. 

The Legislature in its most recent session approved $15 million in funding through the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority program for the project, which will include entirely new heating, cooling and electrical systems and asbestos abatement for the entire building. The asbestos issue was also brought up to the Legislature this year, with L.D. 1969, which calls for doing an inventory of the state government's aging buildings with an eye toward public and employee health.

"While the process of improvement will be time-consuming and require patience and flexibility, the outcome will be a huge advance for these cultural agencies’ ability to care for and share the state’s precious legacy of history and knowledge," Hadyniak said.

How long the building will be closed has yet to be determined. "The scope of the work to be completed is substantial," he said. "It is likely that the building will be closed for several months for the initial stages of the work, then closed in whole or in part for months thereafter. The full extent and patterns of the closure will not be known until the plans for the full project have been completed."

Core staff will be maintained and all three entities housed in the building will offer some level of availability from alternative locations, which haven't yet been publicly announced.

The work has been on the state's radar since at least 2006, when the Legislature formed a task force to look at needed mechanical upgrades at the building and other state buildings. The museum, library and archives had just recently opened back up after the coronavirus pandemic shutdown and the museum, on its website, calls the new shutdown "unexpected."

Photo / Maureen Milliken
The interior of the Maine State Library, which is housed in the Maine State Cultural Building along with the state museum and archives.

When L.D. 1969 was considered by the Legislature in January, Anya Trundy, director of legislative affairs for the DAFS, referred to the building as one of the state's "most troubled" when it comes to health issues.

"In 2020 you'll see a big push to clean up two of our most troubled state-owned building and tighten-up a number of others," Trundy told the Committee on State and Local Government Jan. 22. "Funding has been appropriated for work to begin in 2020 to remediate asbestos in the Cultural Building, which was identified about a year ago and, in the meantime, has required that certain areas of the building be closed off to visitors and work-arounds instituted to protect employees."

L.D. 1969, which aims to protect state workers from carcinogens by cataloging state government buildings, looking at their issues and fixing them, was carried over March 17 as the Legislature shut down because of the pandemic. It was proposed by the Maine Service Employees Association SEIU 1989, the union that represents most of the state's employees.

The money to upgrade the Cultural Building had been approved separately. The other building Trundy referred to is the 285-year-old Stone Building, once part of the Augusta Mental Health Institute, now a state office building campus, on Hospital Street. That building is not occupied.

Mike King, a mechanical engineer with the state and member of the union, told legislators in January the Cultural Building is particularly hazardous.

"All the spray-on fireproofing in the building is made of asbestos," he said. "The mechanical rooms, and many other rooms above the drop ceilings, are laced with this asbestos-ridden fireproofing. Over the years, the stuff has become friable from many different factors, including an ever-declining health of the building, various leaks and mechanical failures.

"Unbeknownst to me and almost anyone else in the building, I've been working with this fireproofing all over the place, disturbing it as I worked," King said. "Walking through it, sweeping it up, brushing it off, knocking it off and around the air handlers as they needed work. This fireproofing breaks down over time and becomes airborne, settling with dust on any given surface. This dust now sits, waiting for the slightest disturbance to become airborne. Myself and many others experienced years of preventable exposure while trying to conduct our jobs to keep the building inhabitable. In addition, we now live with the fact we have possibly exposed the occupants of the building while conducting our work, all unbeknownst to us."

In a joint statement, Deputy Secretary of State for Archives Kate McBrien, State Librarian James Ritter and Museum Director Bernard Fishman said, “while we are sad at the prospect of a long full or partial public closure of the facility, we collectively agree that bringing such systems up to modern specifications will be much better for our visitors, the valuable collections and our staff. The planning for this project has been taking place for some time, and we agree that the existing heating and cooling systems must be replaced sooner rather than later.”

Hadyniak said that the DACFS is committed to making sure the relocation is done with a minimal amount of disruption. "We will support each agency’s ability to find ways to continue serving the public,” he said. “These agencies’ service to Maine citizens is invaluable, and we’re going to find creative ways to make sure we can help each agency sustain its important work.”

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