Presence of asbestos delays cleanup at site of deadly Durham gas explosion

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The presence of asbestos in debris pile at the site of a deadly gas line explosion forced a delay in the excavation portion of the investigation.

City and state officials are trying to determine what caused the April 10 blast that killed Kaffeinate coffee shop owner Kong Lee and fatally injured Dominion Energy employee Jay Rambeaut, who died after two weeks in intensive care.

Crews planned to dig Tuesday at the Duke Street lot, but postponed that work as piles of debris remained in the road. Fire and utilities officials said they hoped to resume work two days later. Blue tarps continued to cover rubble Thursday.

Bill Gilmore, the Natural Gas Deputy Director of Operations for the North Carolina Utilities Commission, said there are two primary issues which need to be resolved before the excavation can begin.

“The roof of the building that exploded had asbestos in it, and the City of Durham has determined there is some of that in the debris pile. That changes the approach of removal to a much more careful, complicated, and expensive enterprise,” Gilmore said.

“The other issues is there was a wall in the building that had the Porsches in it which is unsupported and potentially unstable.”

Asbestos includes a set of fibrous minerals which were used in a lot of commercial construction, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The primary purposes are for insulation and fireproofing.

The building involved in the explosion dates back to 1920.

“If this was commercial insulation or pipe insulation that was ripped apart through the force of the explosion, then it’s potentially (very dangerous),” Duke Associate Professor of Pathology Thomas Sporn said.

His research areas of expertise include mesothelioma and lung cancer. Sporn and another Duke professor co-edited the book Pathology of Asbestos-Related Diseases.

“The surprise demolition of old buildings has the potential to unleash real public health concerns for the community,” Sporn said.

“It’s not just the initial blast and the horrific loss of life and people who were injured in the blast. The downstream effects of the liberation of toxic chemicals and a substance like asbestos, those are real legitimate public health concerns for the community.”

Sporn said it would be a major health hazard to remove rubble which contains asbestos and take it to a landfill. If the rubble from the April 10 explosion did not have asbestos in it, the debris would have already been deposited at a dump.

Durham’s public affairs director, Beverly Thompson, said the city is finalizing a plan with contractors to remove the debris, which she hopes will be complete in a day or two.

“Our desire is to have the cleanup happen as soon as and as safely as possible so that that area of downtown and the businesses involved can begin the process of getting back to normal,” Thompson said.

Assistant Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said the fire department is done with its initial assessment. The city’s file marshal will incorporate the Utilities Commission’s findings into his report.

Iannuzzi said the property owners and their insurance companies are responsible to do the actual clearing of debris. He said the fire department’s focus is reopening the road.

Durham officials declined to provide names of the companies involved. Thompson said she wants to wait until a determination is made of who will actually move the debris.

After the asbestos work is complete, investigators will work to determine if a Ditch Witch boring machine hit the gas line under the road. The machine currently sits under a tarp in front of a building adjacent to the Kaffeinate coffee shop.

Crews want to locate the exact spot where the gas line broke, and will need to expose the gas meter and figure out where to tap into the main.

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