A trip to Hallowell, Maine, is truly a journey back in time. Nestled on the west bank of the Kennebec River just south of Augusta, the town has dozens of fine examples of Victorian architecture, many of which were saved from wrecking balls and painstakingly restored. The Worster House, built in 1832, is one such project in progress. For 127 years, this building was Hallowell’s finest hotel, whose guests included such iconic New Englanders such as writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and attorney and statesman Daniel Webster, who legend says won a court action against the Devil himself. On 4 September 1959, the hotel was closed and the rooms converted into apartments, which have had tenants ever since. Last spring, a development company that specializes in the restoration of older historic buildings, Hallowell House LLC, began renovations on Worster House. On 6 May 2007, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection received complaints from tenants still residing in the building that asbestos fibers were being released from the renovation work.
A subsequent investigation by MDEP confirmed the existence of asbestos fibers in the flooring of the building and throughout the basement. In light of the fact that asbestos was commonly used in building construction prior to 1980 and that asbestos is a particular hazard in older, vintage and historic buildings, one must wonder why Hallowell House LLC, a company that reputedly specializes in such restorations, failed to notify the MDEP (not to mention the tenants) about the asbestos hazard and used unqualified, untrained and unlicensed personnel for asbestos removal. The State of Maine cited the company on those grounds. While it is not certain at this point what will happen, it is likely that the company will face stiff fines, and hefty lawsuits up the road, should any of the tenants or employees become ill as a result of renovation activities.