Amy Waterman, of the Friends of Maine State Museum, left, and Joanna Torow, of Maine State Museum, hold a meeting Tuesday while sitting on benches outside the state Cultural Building in Augusta, where their offices are located. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The Cultural Building, which houses the Maine State Library, Maine State Archives and Maine State Museum, could be closed for up to two years while undergoing major mechanical upgrades and asbestos abatement.

State officials announced earlier this month that the building will be closed “for the foreseeable future” as a new heating, cooling and electrical system is installed. The project will also remove existing asbestos from the building, which was built in 1967.

“We’re pleased to be taking on this much-needed renovation project,” said Kyle Hadyniak, a Department of Administrative and Financial Services spokesperson, who called the repairs and improvements “overdue” in the release.

Anya Trundy, the director of legislative affairs for the department, said that asbestos abatement of the mechanical rooms began Monday and should be done by mid-September. But mechanical redesign and subsequent construction are expected to take an additional two years, she said.

In April 2019, the Kennebec Journal reported about high asbestos levels in settled dusts in the Cultural Building, but a low level of airborne fibers showed no elevated risk of exposure to staff or the public, according to experts. Testing was done in January 2019 following the discovery of asbestos in debris that fell from the ceiling at the museum and archives in October 2018.

Despite perceived lack of risk, George O’Connor, a former maintenance mechanic for the Property Management Division, told the Kennebec Journal said there was no formal notification to custodial or maintenance staff of the hazards of working around asbestos.

“A lot of people work there and have worked their entire working lives in that building, and that to me is the bigger part of the tragedy,” O’Connor said at the time.

On Tuesday, O’Connor, who is now retired, said he saw the new work as reactionary rather than proactive. Even so, he was glad the work was being done.

“They had the opportunity to do this a long time ago,” he said. “It can only benefit anyone going forward.”

A dehumidifier sits in the Maine State Museum lobby Tuesday in Augusta. The tables were used as the check-in desk for the brief time the museum was open between the coronavirus closure and being closed again because of the need to upgrade HVAC system in building. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Trundy said parts of the building were closed or had limited access because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the mechanical system failure means a complete closure of the building to the public. The mechanical failure, she said, is related to the air conditioning system. She said some staff has remained in the building, while others have been relocated.

“Air continues to circulate in accordance with air volume standards,” Trundy said.

State officials said legislators approved $15 million in funding through the Maine Governmental Facilities Authority program for new heating, cooling and electrical systems for the building, as well as the project to remove existing asbestos from the building.

Trundy said the building has never had a major renovation since it was built 53 years ago, and funding for renovations has been “sought for the past 20 years.” Until the current biennial budget, money was never appropriated to prioritize the mechanical upgrades and accompanying abatement now underway.

The design and construction of the new mechanical system will be handled by Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, Inc.

A great black hawk that was euthanized after it took up residence in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park and sustained frostbite in 2019 was preserved through taxidermy and is seen Tuesday on display at the Maine State Museum in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Each agency housed in the building is developing plans to continue core staff operations and may offer scaled back services from other locations, state officials said.

Another issue related to state workers’ exposure to asbestos and other carcinogens is before legislators, but has not been acted upon. L.D. 1969, “An Act To Protect State Workers from Exposure to Carcinogens,” pushes for cataloging of data related to contaminants in public building, creation of new standards for contaminants in public buildings, improving testing requirements, and improving the ability of state workers to raise safety concerns.

Trundy said officials from the Department of Administrative and Financial Services testified in support of the bill and is already proactively undertaking much of what the bill proposed.

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