Asbestos fears fuel Main Street rubble cleanup delays
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Twisted metal and shards of glass remain scattered in front of massive piles of rubble on the 800 block of Main Street, months after three businesses burned down at the site.
The risk of asbestos exposure has delayed efforts to clean up the fenced-in rubble left behind by a February fire, officials said.
Meantime, some people working near the site say the view sets a negative tone.
“It’s a definite eyesore if you’re on Main Street looking at it… (Many) visitors come down Main, so it’s not a good look,” said Rick, who did not want his last name published.
Another employee working nearby said he’s concerned about people frequently getting past the fence to try to salvage smoke-damaged items.
“It’s been sitting there too long. (It adds) a danger to the community with everybody climbing in there looking for little goodies or whatever they can find,” said Lance, who did not share his last name.
He said equipment was recently used to haul away material from one of the three properties, indicating at least some work has resumed.
On Feb. 11, when Surplus Direct (843 Main St.), Top Pro Roofing (847 Main St.) and Lord Selkirk Furniture (835 Main St.) caught fire, all three buildings collapsed and were deemed a total loss.
City officials ordered the owners to demolish the properties Feb. 17, which led initial cleanup to begin, Winnipeg spokesman Kalen Qually said.
However, that work was delayed soon after, when Manitoba Workplace Safety and Health issued stop work orders due to the likelihood of asbestos at the site, said Mayor Scott Gillingham.
In an interview with CJOB radio on Thursday morning, the mayor counted himself among those anxious to get the area cleaned up.
“That is a blight. It is an eyesore. It’s frustrating to me when I drive by there… (But) the provincial workplace health and safety order trumps, (it) supersedes the city’s order to clean up,” Gillingham said.
”That is a blight. It is an eyesore.”–Mayor Scott Gillingham
The mayor did not question the reason for the provincial delay, but stressed the city is working to clean up rubble from that site and others.
“When something burns or when something’s torn down, the rubble is cleaned up as soon as possible.”
Gillingham was not available for further comment Thursday.
In an email, a provincial spokesman confirmed safety risks did lead to stop work orders.
“Due to the age of the buildings involved, there was concern regarding the presence of asbestos in the rubble pile and (WSH) issued three stop work orders on Feb. 24, 2023 — one to each employer. When disturbed, asbestos dust can pose a health risk, so it is important to ensure that appropriate measures are in place. The stop work orders were issued to ensure the disposal plan appropriately addressed the risk prior to work commencing,” the spokesman said.
The province says one of the stop work orders was lifted April 17, while the other two remain in effect “pending the receipt of the removal (plans).”
According to Health Canada, breathing in asbestos fibres can cause lung cancer, lung scarring and other diseases.
A city councillor who has repeatedly raised concerns over rubble left behind from demolished buildings said the Main Street delay highlights a need for governments to tackle the issue together.
“This is one thing that we really need to work with the province on. I live in the West End and (pretty much) every single house here has been made with asbestos… I’d hate to hear that we’re holding things up when there could be (cleanup) work that is being done,” said Coun. Cindy Gilroy, adding multiple local companies can provide safe asbestos removal.
Gilroy said leaving the remains of demolished buildings behind for an extended period hurts the image of the surrounding community.
“We already have issues with people saying they don’t want to come down to inner-city neighbourhoods. That could be very much a perception (of the area)… but when you see demolished buildings and rubble, it adds to that perception.”
Gilroy recently raised a motion to have city staff remove debris from demolition sites once it has been left on place for at least six months, then charge the owners for the work on their property tax bills.
Council’s community services committee will debate that idea Friday.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.