Asbestos in the Heartland

A flood that occurred over forty years ago is still haunting the people of Deer Trail, Colorado. Located in Arapahoe County about 55 miles east of Denver along I-70, this town with a population of approximately 600 people was once a thriving railroad town. During the 1920s, it boasted two banks, five grocery stores and three hotels. On June 17, 1965, four days of unusually heavy rains in eastern Colorado caused the Bijou Creek to flood the town, wiping out 80% of Deer Trail’s business district. Many of those buildings have never been repaired. One of them–the Schindler Building, constructed over one hundred years ago–could be neither renovated nor demolished because of asbestos. Deer Trail is only one of many small towns located on the Great Plains where asbestos has become a problem. And because of twenty-six years of misplaced priorities and corporate control of government in which profits trump the needs of society, these problems are not going to get any better. A project to demolish the Schindler Building ground to a stop when asbestos was discovered. The estimated cost to remove the substance was substantially larger than the town’s entire annual budget of $100,000.

Similar situations are cropping up in other small Colorado towns. The value of a lot containing an abandoned sugar-beet processing plant in Eaton has been appraised at $65,000, but it will cost several times that in order to legally and safely move the asbestos-laden building. Meanwhile, a historic-preservation project in Eads has now been put on hold because of asbestos; similarly, a low-income housing project in Fowler must now be delayed for an indefinite period because of the discovery of asbestos. “Any building built in the 1950s or prior probably has asbestos in it, and you see it everywhere in these rural communities,” says Deer Trail mayor Jim Johnson. Unfortunately, there’s no relief in sight, either. “There’s no cheap way for small towns to dispose of asbestos safely, and there’s no money,” says Mark Walker of Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Meanwhile, some independent-minded people think the government should stay out of what they perceive as a “private property” matter. The fact is however, that asbestos fibers can contaminate a wide area, constituting a very public health hazard if not properly handled.