Asbestos concerns at Tommy’s Lounge being investigated

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Following up on a complaint by a concerned citizen, state environmental officials are trying to find out if the old Tommy’s Lounge building on Main Street, which is currently being torn down, contains asbestos.

Allan Morris, an investigator with the New Mexico Environment Department, confirmed that an investigation is underway, but added, “So far we’ve found no reason to believe there are any violations.”

Mike Bush-News-Bulletin photo: Demolition of the old Tommy’s Lounge building on Belen’s Main Street continues while the state Environment Department investigates an anonymous complaint of possible asbestos contamination.

Later, in an email, Morris said the complaint came from an anonymous Belen resident.

“The inspector was told by the complainant that there were substantial particulate emissions from the demolition activity and asbestos might be present in the structure.”

Jim Winchester, the department’s official spokesperson, said no additional information would be released at this time due to “potential violations and enforcement action.”

A man called the News-Bulletin last week saying he suspected there was asbestos in the building. He said he had also alerted authorities and would call the newspaper again. So far he hasn’t. He declined to leave a number where he could be reached.

Percy Yu, the building’s owner, on Wednesday said he has spoken with investigators at length about the asbestos question and is awaiting their decision.

The property on which the building is located on the southwest corner of Didier Avenue and Main, has been on the market for “a couple of years,” according to Bill Adams, the listing agent with Coldwell Banker.

Adams said the man also contacted him, at first identifying himself only as a concerned citizen. The realtor said the caller was extremely reluctant to divulge his name.

“I had to force it out of him,” he said.

He was also circumspect about the reasons for his call and his interest in the building. In addition to asbestos, he claimed the building contained other dangerous materials, Adams said. Again, the man refused to leave a call-back number.

Yu said he believes the name left with the listing agent may not be the caller’s real name.

“I believe someone’s just determined to give me as much harassment as possible,” Yu said. “Someone is trying to stir up something.”

Yu, a retired flight surgeon with the Air Force, said he worked for many years in public health and that one of the offices under his jurisdiction was a department called Biological Environmental Engineering, which periodically dealt with asbestos issues. He considers himself knowledgeable about the subject.

“There was no sign of asbestos when I bought the building,” he said. “If there was, I wouldn’t have bought the building.”

The demolition of the two-story structure got underway two weeks ago. At the time, the ceilings had already been removed. There were no obvious signs of asbestos-laden insulation or other materials.

Steven Tomita, the city’s planning and zoning director, said the building had been “gutted” many years ago.

And Adams noted that it was “stripped” when he inspected the interior some time ago.

According to the Valencia County Tax Assessor’s office, the structure was built in 1898, making it unlikely that asbestos would have been used during construction.

However, it could have been added later. Asbestos was widely used in construction around World War II, especially during the post-war building boom that began in 1945.

Yu said he is cooperating 100 percent with investigating authorities. However, he said, the demolition is continuing because he has not been told to halt the work while the investigation proceeds.

Asbestos, now known as an extremely dangerous carcinogen, was once widely touted as a miracle substance, particularly useful for insulation and for its fire-retardant qualities.

It is a major cause of mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity, and asbestosis, a condition in which the lungs become horribly scarred with fibrous tissue.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, houses built between 1930 and 1950 may contain asbestos as insulation, and some roofing and siding shingles are made of an asbestos cement. It may also be present in textured paint and in patching compounds used on wall and ceiling joints. Its use was banned in 1977.

The watchdog commission also warns of other uses, any of which might possibly pertain to the old Tommy’s Lounge building:

• Artificial ashes and embers sold for use in gas-fired fireplaces may contain asbestos.

• Older stove-top pads may contain some asbestos compounds.

• Walls and floors around wood burning stoves may have been “protected” with asbestos paper, millboard or cement sheets.

• Asbestos is found in some vinyl floor tiles and the backing on vinyl sheet flooring and adhesives.

• Hot water and steam pipes in older houses may be coated with an asbestos material or covered with an asbestos blanket or tape.

• Oil and coal furnaces and door gaskets may have asbestos insulation.