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Asbestos leads to school closure

25 bags found under First Nations building

A Manitoba First Nation shut down its school Monday due to safety concerns after a worker found 25 bags of asbestos stored in a crawl space.

On Tuesday, Berens River Chief George Kemp said council ordered the K-9 school closed after a worker discovered more than two-dozen bags full of asbestos in the school's crawl space. He said it's unsafe for the school's 350 students and 100 staff to go in the school until an independent investigation determines there is no health danger.

Kemp said Frontier School Division hired a company to remove asbestos from the school but did not tell anyone it was being kept on site.

"That place is contaminated," Kemp said. "We're not sending our kids into that environment."

Frontier School Division chief superintendent Ray Derksen released a statement Tuesday saying a mechanical contractor discovered asbestos at the Berens River School following air-quality tests in 2010. Derksen's statement said the school division hired a qualified remediation company to remove and contain the asbestos, and the material was sealed and labelled according to provincial regulations and "temporarily stored" in the crawl space under the school until it could be transported out of the community by winter road.

On Tuesday, the school division made arrangements for an independent expert to travel to the community to conduct a visual inspection and air-quality testing. The division said it was advised access to the school will not be allowed by chief and council.

"At no time has Frontier covered up information regarding the conditions at the school or knowingly exposed occupants of the school to any risk or harm," Derksen's statement said.

A provincial cabinet spokeswoman said the government hopes community leaders will grant the outside expert access to confirm whether it is safe for students to return as soon as possible. She said the Frontier School Division initially conducted air-quality tests in 2010 at the request of the community, and shared the fact asbestos remediation was needed in a report to chief and council.

The spokeswoman said contained or encapsulated asbestos is not a health risk, according to information from Health Canada, which states asbestos only poses a risk when fibres are present in the air people breathe.

Kemp said community residents don't trust the school is safe, particularly in light of a number of asbestos-related deaths in Poplar River, a First Nations community just north of Berens River on the eastern edge of Lake Winnipeg.

Zonolite is a pebble-like attic insulation made from the mineral vermiculite, which came from a mine in Libby, Mont., that was tainted with naturally occurring deposits of asbestos. Zonolite was popular in Canada from the 1950s until the 1980s and Canada paid for it to be installed in First Nations and military housing.

"Everybody knows about that story and that's why it's so scary," Kemp said, referring to the deaths in Poplar River. "For years, people who work in that school have been telling me about being sick."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca

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