Updated at 5:40 p.m. Wednesday with comments from Mayor Lyda Krewson – The day after a recent four-alarm fire engulfed the historic Clemens House on Cass Avenue, neighbors got together with brooms and shovels to start cleaning up the debris left scattered across their yards.
“We started talking and started looking and then we decided — wait a minute, we don’t know what we’re sweeping up here,” said Larry Chapman, a retired carpenter who lives on Helen Street.
Chapman and his neighbors worried the debris could contain asbestos — a building material that can cause cancer and respiratory problems. But their calls to the city health department went unanswered, so Chapman gathered some of the charred remains and took them to a local lab for testing.
The results came back positive for chrysotile, a type of asbestos. But residents in the St. Louis Place neighborhood had to wait days — and raise public alarm — for the city to respond to their concerns.
On Tuesday evening, nearly a week after the fire, Environmental Protection Agency lab tests confirmed the presence of asbestos. City health officials say they will work with the agency to conduct a health impact assessment in the area and to monitor for airborne asbestos.
Residents wonder why it took so long, given the health concerns.
“There are many children on the block,” he said. “I’m mostly concerned about the health of the younger kids because if asbestos does get in your system, it can take a while to show up.”
On Monday, neighbors gathered on Helen Street as EPA workers collected samples of residue from their yards. They said they fear Clemens House owner Paul McKee won't be held responsible for any contamination since the EPA was not able to access the house for testing. The agency needed McKee's permission to enter the site, but he initially refused to provide it.
In a statement released Wednesday, McKee said he hired a company several years ago to remove loose asbestos. But roofing material that contained asbestos was left in place to avoid damaging the house.
He added that once his insurance company and the city review demolition bids, a clean-up effort will be underway.
Residents also questioned the city’s response to their concerns given its ongoing relationship with McKee. The developer has repeatedly received millions of dollars in tax credits and tax increment financing for proposed projects on the north side, though there has been little visible progress.
“This is just another example of how he truly does not care what happens to the residents here,” said Sheila Rendon, a longtime resident of the area.
Rendon moved near the Clemens House recently after being forced to leave the home she grew up in when the city obtained it through eminent domain to make way for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
She joined her neighbors outside on Monday to watch the EPA bag and label samples and try to get answers about what would come next.
Now that city officials have the test results, they’ve released a statement asking that residents “not disturb any debris from the fire until health officials conduct further tests.”
“We’re going to meet with the EPA and they are going to inform us the next steps,” said Chantez Williams, a project manager with the city health department. “And we are going to put together an action plan on how to move forward to protect the citizens and the residents of the city of St. Louis.”
The EPA will now be allowed onsite to test the building.
Mayor Lyda Krewson said if the tests are positive for asbestos, McKee's Northside Regneration likely will be held responsible.
"The EPA looks to the responsible party to mediate the debris," Krewson said. "In this case, the EPA thinks Northside Regeneration is the accountable party and they've spoken with Northside about this."
For now, residents continue to live alongside the debris.
“This was a horrific experience for all of us here on this block,” said Leon Bell, whose house was damaged by the fire when wind carried glowing the embers across Helen Street. Bell said he went to the hospital Monday morning due to chest pains that developed after the fire.
“I had to get my kids out after I found out that it contained asbestos,” he said. “I can’t let my kids back in there. If this is a hazard then I think that, for human lives – we should be more concerned.”
Rebecca Rivas of The St. Louis American contributed to this report.
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Clarification: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the neighborhood where Clemens House is located.