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EPA to begin asbestos removal from Rock-Tenn Paper Mill in Otsego

EPA to begin asbestos removal from Rock-Tenn Paper Mill in Otsego. (WWMT/File)
EPA to begin asbestos removal from Rock-Tenn Paper Mill in Otsego. (WWMT/File)
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to cleanup an asbestos contaminated building at the vacant Rock-Tenn Paper Mill On April 3, 2019.

The Rock-Tenn Paper Mill, located on the banks of the Kalamazoo River, stopped operations in 2004, and has been vacant ever since. The EPA said it will remove asbestos from the power house building at the former Rock-Tenn facility and likely demolish it during the project because they determined the building is unsafe.

Pam McQueer is partially blind. A condition she believed is linked to environmental contamination while living near the Menasha Paper Mill in the 1970's. McQueer hoped her story can be a lesson for the future.

"Unfortunately time is against us, for me that was 40 years ago. It's the mishandling of the contamination that we know more about today," Pam McQueer said.

On Tuesday night, the EPA held a public meeting in Otsego to brief residents about the cleanup plan.

"We want this to be taken care of and make this safer for you and the environment," said Tricia Edwards, federal on-scene coordinator for the EPA.

The EPA will spend $1 million on the cleanup, which is expected to take three months.

The asbestos needed to be removed because its microscopic fibers can be inhaled and irritate lungs. Long-term exposure can cause lung scarring, lung cancer and mesothelioma. In 1975, EPA banned installation of asbestos pipe insulation and asbestos block insulation on facility components, such as boilers and hot water tanks.

"The loose asbestos material will be taken by hand and will be taken very methodically," Edwards said.

During the cleanup process, Edwards said crews will "wet down" the building to control dust, and crews will use special protective clothing and face masks to protect themselves from exposure to asbestos dust. The EPA said the asbestos and building debris would be carefully removed and trucked to a EPA-certified waste landfill in Zeeland. Edwards said the air monitors would be placed around the building during the project work to test for asbestos and ensure none is being released off-site.

"Our monitoring equipment will tell us if there's particulates in the air, but if there's dust then there's potential for asbestos," Edwards said.

County development officials said the demolition and cleanup is an important step to attracting potential private development on the mill site.

"Developers have approached us in the past but have been hesitant because of the asbestos problem in the powerhouse," Dan Wedge, Allegan County Executive Director of Services, said.

The EPA had completed a site assessment for asbestos and containment, but said they found no other cause for concern.

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Fences were expected to be put up and signs posted to keep people from being exposed to asbestos during the cleanup. Work crews planned to access the area from Helen Street and/or West River Street during the project.

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