Coming up with a plan
Officials: Asbestos issue at AHS a problem that needs to be solved
It’s been over 50 years since Alpena High School opened its doors.
Since 1967, thousands of students have walked through hallways, entered classrooms, changed in locker rooms, trained in the weight room and competed inside the gymnasium.
Like many aging establishments, over time, small upgrades are needed and have been made to the school to maintain a safe and healthy experience for students.
A recent $63 million bond proposal — $27 million of which would go to the high school — has been created with the hopes that major upgrades will be made throughout the schools, and especially the athletic facilities at AHS.
“The locker rooms are a real problem in the building. They are in the basement of the building and we have students that are in wheelchairs that aren’t able to access those locker rooms and are forced to change in a small bathroom and that is just not an acceptable thing for those students and families of those students,” Alpena Public Schools Superintendent John VanWagoner said. “We also have a real ventilation problem in that building because the locker room area and weight room is just in a dungeon-like area. The weight room is essentially an asbestos-filled closet. This is a room that was never meant to be occupied and there are raw sewage pipes running through the downstairs area and those are the realities.”
Much of the plan is intended to remove the window glass front located in the front oval of the school that wraps around the gymnasium and auditorium.
The new design is intended to create smaller windows up top to bring natural light, but also bring the weight room upstairs, across from the gymnasium, with the locker rooms on the opposite side, located near the tennis courts and practice field, along with a new office area near the library, and an expansion of the commons area.
“We knew we needed a weight room, but this new design serves a higher purpose of removing all of the glass. The weight room will be there next to the gym and the locker rooms need to be on the main floor and it also worries me if there was ever an attack or any kind of assault down in that dungeon of a basement, no one would ever hear anything,” VanWagoner said. “This is all a big issue, and not to mention we have the worst facilities in the Big North Conference. Across the board, other than hockey which is a great county facility and we’re thankful to have that, every other facility we have, athletics-wise, is by far the worst in the Big North Conference.”
As important as the upgrades would be, a current asbestos issue presents itself within the weight room, locker rooms and trainers office and will only get worse over time.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral substance that can be pulled into a fluffy consistency. Microscopic asbestos fibers cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and it is easy for a person to inhale or swallow asbestos dust without realizing it.
Over time, that can become dangerous.
The weight room and locker room area, which lies beneath the gymnasium in the basement of the high school, is filled with pipes that have all been covered with asbestos coverings. They have been sealed off, but as the pipes are growing older, becoming more brittle, they are leaking or falling apart.
When that happens, areas become contaminated.
There have been several occasions where anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 have been spent to fix leaking issues — and it’s happening all over.
“You have an area where you have kids working with poor ventilation in the first place and then you put it next to a pipe closet that is full of asbestos-covered pipes that costs a ton of money to remove all of that, it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” VanWagoner said. “These are areas that were never meant to be occupied, but yet our kids have nothing else and there are no other areas in the building to have a weight room-type area that is large enough to handle the amount of kids that we have on sports teams and athletic classes.”
Throughout the locker room areas, weight room, and trainers room, there are pipes decaying and leaking. The weight room is a small, tight area that is roughly seven feet tall with pipes hanging from the ceiling. Athletes have to use extra caution when executing certain lifts, to avoid hitting the pipes. Not to mention that, at times, the room becomes very damp with all of the athletes training in a small area at one time.
For many years, the asbestos closet was used to store nearly all of the football equipment that was handed out each season. A stamp on one of the pipes entering the closet warns of a hazardous asbestos area.
This past fall, members of the football team began getting rashes on their body and it took several weeks for the skin to heal and rashes to go away. It isn’t clear if that was related to the asbestos in that area of the school.
Asbestos has caused other issues, however. Recently, the press box at the softball field was shut down because of a roof leak and an asbestos issue in the area. That forced the program to get rid of helmets, softballs and other equipment that had been stored in the press box.
“It (asbestos) usually doesn’t travel very far, but when you’re right next to it, that’s a situation where you’re in it at that point. A disaster is a chunk of a pipe falling off and dust goes up into the air, going through the blowers and it goes to the closest point, which is the locker rooms and weight room,” VanWagoner said. “The stuff being able to vacate and leave that area is slim to none, and that’s just the reality of what it is and what we’re dealing with.”
There are pieces of pipes decaying in the trainer’s room and generally there is a pipe that leaks onto a desk in the trainer’s office. People who are generally in the weight room, locker room and training room areas are frequently concerned with the shape that the overhead pipes are in.
“The key things are that if the asbestos gets disrupted, then at that point you stop and get it all cleaned up. If it’s sitting there and untouched and not messed with, it’s probably OK. Our problem is the things that are around it are 50 years old. The district was financially bankrupt three years ago, when I walked in the door we were just starting to come out of deficit. We were a million dollars in the hole and you can’t do repairs when you’re that far in the hole,” VanWagoner said. “When you have a 50-year-old building and things haven’t been replaced, it’s just a reality that things are going to happen and then, when they happen, that’s what can trigger the problem and we’re starting to have those things happen. As we keep going along, we just keep losing ground and going further in the hole and, as things get older and older and not repaired, this is just going to keep becoming a bigger problem.”
VanWagoner believes it is important that everyone knows about the asbestos issues in the aging facilities. The reality of those buildings falling apart is way beyond the budget money and the school does not get any money from the state for repairs on buildings and structures.
Alpena teachers, on average, are making $10,000 less than what they made in 2009, VanWagoner said.
The biggest issue and question is, where will the money come from in order to make the necessary upgrades? VanWagoner believes the only avenue is to go to the taxpayers and have them understand all of the issues the school has and to try and move forward.
The issues presented in the weight room and locker room areas are more than just problems that AHS athletes face, but students in general, as each student is required to complete one physical education credit hour, meaning a large portion of the student body and a handful of faculty members are being exposed to the issues on a daily basis.
“I think we have made it clear that we have asbestos issues across the building. Are we being responsible and cleaning it up and doing all of those things? We absolutely are. Is it a budget-buster because of the aging building? It absolutely is. Do I feel like any kids right now are in any danger of something that I know is a contaminated area right now? I absolutely do not believe that any kids are in danger as we sit here. Are there increasing chances as the building continues to deteriorate? Absolutely,” VanWagoner said. “One of the key points I want to be recognized is it’s not just downstairs, because their are issues in the auditorium, hallways and bathrooms, as well. This is a reality of the entire building, but if we had the opportunity to get out of that downstairs basement, it’s a great idea. It is just not a great spot for anything to be happening other than maybe storage.”
It’s not a great place and not a safe place to have kids in every day, but it’s what the students and faculty have and they are forced to make the best out of a poor situation.
“By law, we are supposed to provide facilities like these, and when this is all you have, it is what we have. We don’t see any way right now that there is a possibility anyone gets ill because of this. We have no record of any disturbances in that area since I have been here. If there were any issues, I would recommend a student have a talk with a family physician, but we don’t believe anything has happened and as that building continues to age, we want to make sure it does not happen and the only way to ensure that is to not be in that area,” VanWagoner said. “I think, overall, some things are a concern and there’s no easy way to clean some of the things that are down there. I do not think it is a life or death thing, but I also don’t believe it promotes a healthy area and I absolutely think it poses a health risk. It is a concern and kids could get sick. We’re doing everything we can from proper cleaning measures and our maintenance and custodial workers do a bang-up job, but the reality is that it was a poor design in the first place 50 years ago and there needs to be a level of concern of whether this is the best quality environment that we need to have for kids. It is not and that’s what is trying to be accomplished with the bond.”