Historic Oregon Middle School Faces Axe on Asbestos

In Hillsboro (Washington County), Oregon, a 2006, $169-million bond measure designed to replace aging J.B. Thomas Middle School with five new schools has sparked a controversy that threatens to alienate historic building lovers from the school district and the city council alike.

J.B. Thomas, an 81-year old former school building running on steam heat from ancient boilers, is rife with asbestos and mildew. The first can be lethal, the second is merely a nuisance but, as Gwen Neale notes, it makes using the building for high school plays a risky undertaking, since performers often end up with bronchitis afterward.

The asbestos in J.B. Thomas is less problematic. Asbestos, a fibrous mineral found in rock formations, was mined and used heavily in the first half of the last century as an insulating agent, particularly on boiler pipes. It also found use in floor and ceiling tiles, tile glues and some weather sealant products, to name just a few of its many uses.

Undisturbed, asbestos is harmless. When it is disturbed, however, it releases microscopic fibers that can be breathed in, or swallowed. Once this happens, the fibers remain inside the body for a lifetime, unlike bacteria, viruses and even pollutants, which the human body can repel through the immune system, lymphatic system or circulatory system.

These fibers can cause asbestosis, a respiratory disease, cancers of the respiratory and digestive tracts, and mesothelioma, a particularly lethal form of cancer that attacks the mesothelial lining of the chest and abdomen. Of the kinds of mesothelioma, pleural mesothelioma is both the most common and the most deadly, lying dormant for decades before revealing itself. Once diagnosed, most pleural mesothelioma sufferers are given a little more than a year to live.

J.B. Thomas preservationists, including former Mayor Tom Hughes, want the school saved, and oppose its $978,000 demolition scheduled for late July or August. Calling themselves Friends of the Old School, these devotees want to preserve the art-deco building and its auditorium (the largest in Hillsboro, at a seating capacity of more than 900) for use as a community arts center. The impasse, to demolish or renovate, will be decided by a Washington County judge on Sunday, June 28.

Hughes and one other former member of the city council also say that they were deceived by the school district, which stated before passage of the bond issue that it would discuss saving J.B. Thomas with the city – a deception that Hughes has described as “bait and switch”.

The difficulty with renovating historic buildings is the extent, and cost, of asbestos remediation, which can be found virtually everywhere inside old buildings. In addition, if the school were ever used as part of the school district’s facilities in any capacity, it would have to meet not only National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) renovation regulations, but Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) mandates. This latter is a 1986 law which governs how school districts must address asbestos issues.

These regulations would face even more difficult compliance now that the Hillsboro School District has already built a new elementary school on the J.B. Thomas property.

Granted, historic buildings are, and should be, part of a city’s culture, a visual link to the past and a template for the future. However, this may not be true of school buildings, which house the young and vulnerable, who are at risk of cutting their lives short as a result of asbestos exposure.

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