Nine 3D animation students were back Monday in the Media Arts Lab in McGill Hall — with its powerful computers — for the first time since Jan. 29.
"We haven't been able to move this fast in a month and a half," said faculty member Greg Twigg as the students downloaded files.
"Yep," said a student in response.
Earlier this semester, the University of Montana closed McGill Hall because it detected "unacceptable levels" of asbestos in dust. It had relocated a preschool with 40 children two days before shuttering the entire building.
Since then, the campus has incurred about $200,000 in cleanup costs related to asbestos, and 43 people have filed worker's compensation claims, according to UM. Paul Lasiter, vice president for finance and operations, confirmed the bill to date includes everything from consultant fees to new furniture purchases; he declined to estimate the total cost because he said it would be speculation at this point.
Asbestos can cause cancer and other illnesses when it's inhaled, but air tests UM ordered and posted on its website showed no detectable levels of the carcinogen in the building, constructed in 1953.
However, parents of preschoolers have worried about periods of time when the air might not have been safe to breathe given the high levels of asbestos that accumulated on surface dust. Some tests showed fibers 80 times higher than a federal cleanup threshold for residences.
UM temporarily relocated the McGill preschool and the Craighead Child Care Facility to the College of Education. UM officials and the Associated Students of the University of Montana are looking for another location for the 71 children and holding more public listening sessions this week.
Monday, people in the building were mostly pleased to be back in spaces with equipment that accommodated the needs of students.
Twigg's students used "old" and slow computers in the Liberal Arts Building. Some Media Arts students found themselves having to share equipment or only able to listen to lectures instead of working hands on in the classroom as they usually do.
Monday, Delaney Cummins, a senior, said she's learning a brand new program, After Effects, and it was hard to advance with more than a month of lost time. Jude MacDonald expects to graduate next year, and the closure of McGill Hall didn't help his progress, either.
"Let's just say I lost a lot of sleep and security, as well as time to do my project," MacDonald said.
Twigg said he has stressed to his students that the university can't afford to get the cleanup wrong, but at least one student was skeptical. Luke Boyd, a senior, said UM officials can announce the building is safe for occupancy, but he'll take that reassurance with a grain of salt.
"I know that the university is going to protect their bottom line no matter what," Boyd said.
Although the 3D animation class appeared to be in full swing, most of the rest of the building still looked quiet.
Valerie Moody, a professor in the Athletic Training Program, said her concern about health effects was fairly low. She and some other occupants of McGill got the green light to move back in over the weekend, and she said she was mainly excited to once again have offices and equipment in the same place.
"We're really equipment intense, and having everything accessible to our students is important, so it's nice to be back," Moody said.
Michael Murphy, a professor in Media Arts, had worked in the building more than 20 years, and he planned to schedule a lung capacity test. He works out of an office on the second floor, and he and others in the same area had been granted permission to access to the building a week earlier.
Although the temporary relocation hamstrung students, Murphy said it had a silver lining too.
He said students walk around campus, but many instructors stay tied to their own offices and buildings. As part of the closure, Media Arts instructors temporarily moved into Anderson Hall with faculty from the School of Journalism.
"It forced us to talk with people we should have been talking with for a long time anyway," Murphy said.
As part of a planned restructure at UM, both journalism and media arts will be part of a College of Arts and Media.
Earlier, some Media Arts students asked Provost Jon Harbor about whether UM would offer tuition reimbursement for lost classroom and lab time. UM has not directly addressed whether reimbursement is a possibility, and the flagship also hasn't addressed whether it has hired outside legal counsel related to asbestos.
Monday, spokeswoman Paula Short said Harbor was unavailable for comment on tuition reimbursement, but the focus has been on getting students, faculty and staff back into McGill.
"We’re hopeful that the students temporarily displaced from McGill have been able to continue with their studies and, now back into the facility, will be able to finish the semester successfully," Short said in an email.
She said the first and second floors of McGill have been cleaned and "clearance tested." On the lower level, the ASUM Child Care space and some offices still need to be cleaned.
"These areas are segmented from the rest of the facility so that we could open up the majority of the building," Short said in an email. "We don’t have a specific timeline on completing the lower level at this time."
She said the work completed includes a couple of key projects. First, UM finished the "repair and re-encapsulation of a steam pipe line beneath the child care space." She said the pipe was inspected and rewrapped, "encapsulating the ACMs," or asbestos containing materials.
Also, she said a contractor used a HEPA filter to clean the 9-inch-by-9-inch tiles throughout the first and second floors and sealed them, "the industry-approved method for managing in place.'' Workers applied coats of wax on top of the sealant, and if the base sealant layer isn’t damaged, the floor can be maintained with periodic waxing, according to UM.
Other work included ceiling-to-floor vacuuming with a HEPA-certified vacuum, wet wipe cleaning surfaces "per industry best practices," and cleaning of electronics.