Employees told to leave old Bastrop County Jail over asbestos concerns

Old Bastrop County Jail (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)
Old Bastrop County Jail (KXAN Photo/Richie Bowes)

BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — Employees have been removed from the historic old Bastrop County Jail, officials said Wednesday, citing health and safety concerns.

A tip KXAN received said the building was shut down Tuesday and that county employees were never warned about asbestos in the plaster on the walls.

The building in the courthouse complex at 801 Pine St. houses the county’s Indigent Care program, Prescription Assistance and Civil Process offices. It’s also where the grand jury convenes. Now the building has been locked and will be off limits until further notice and the district attorney and Court at Law will find alternative locations for its juries.

County Judge Paul Pape says the building was damaged by Hurricane Harvey. He says the results of Austin Enviro Group’s recent assessment were released Tuesday morning and showed some plaster containing a “small percentage of asbestos” was loosened and displaced.

“As soon as we found out about this we immediately evacuated the building,” Pape said, adding that the main concern is for the health and safety of county employees and the public.

Hurricane Harvey hit in August. Pape said testing was done Jan. 29. So KXAN asked why the county didn’t move employees out of the building sooner, as the testing was being done, as opposed to waiting for the results.

“The reason we didn’t move them sooner is we didn’t have any reason to move them,” Pape said, saying they didn’t know there was a potential asbestos exposure. “When FEMA first came and said it smells moldy in here, we asked the employees at that time if that’s a problem for them. And no one expressed to me that they were ill or not able to do their work.”

Pape said there is no plan to do a countywide assessment for the presence of asbestos in buildings because of the cost that would be associated with that.

“Only when we become aware of an issue do we deal with it. And I think that’s a reasonable and proper way to deal with these environmental issues,” Pape said.

KXAN asked if there was any desire to be proactive than reactive.

“Well, where would you start looking for trouble?” Pape said.

He explained that every supporting department, “including IT, Purchasing, the Auditor’s Office, the Office of Emergency Management, Engineering, and General Services,” is helping to relocate staff and get the displaced services back up and running.

Pape believes they will be ready to reopen for business by Tuesday, Feb. 20 in the Grady Tuck Building at 104 Loop 150 in Bastrop. The nine employees who worked in the old county jail are on administrative leave until then.

Pape told KXAN it’s going to take some “serious remediation” to get the building back where employees and the public can go inside. It’s too soon to say how much that could cost.

KXAN Investigates checked with the Department of State Health Services and found Bastrop County has only submitted one notice for asbestos abatement in the last year. And that was for an entirely different building, the Juvenile Service Building.

Regulations require that notification is made to the state before beginning any renovation projects which include the disturbance of any asbestos-containing material in a building or facility, or before the demolition of any building, even when no asbestos is present. Any notification not made at least 10 days prior to any work being done may result in enforcement.

“Our staff knows we’re not going to abandon them,” Pape said, saying he’s been in contact with Human Resources to make sure the employees can get physically examined. “Based on the findings, we will continue to monitor their health going forward and make sure if there is a condition that needs to be treated that it’s treatable and it’s taken care of.”

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