Governor's office says asbestos problem isolated

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Republican Gov. Matt Blunt cited the presence of "dangerous asbestos" as part of the reason for a renovation of the governor's Capitol office.

As it turns out, the asbestos was on only one piece of plywood, which a worker removed by simply carrying it away. The asbestos served as insulation on an old 4-foot-by-3-foot radiator cover, Blunt's Office of Administration commissioner, Michael Keathley, said Tuesday.

Asked about his earlier characterizations of the asbestos problem, Blunt on Tuesday insisted: "I did not exaggerate."

Blunt officials provided details about the asbestos after the state Democratic Party gave The Associated Press a copy of letters to it from Blunt's administration in response to an open-records request about the asbestos. The governor's office said it had no asbestos records.

"I am told that the amount was so small and self-contained that its removal did not generate any records or extra costs," Henry Herschel, chief counsel for the Office of Administration, said in the April 14 letter.

As part of the roughly $43,000 renovation, which occurred after Blunt became governor in January, crews built walls to replace some cubicles and installed new carpet, ceiling tiles and lights. About half of the cost was covered with materials the state already had in stock.

A Feb. 18 news release touted that the project had cost less than estimated and proclaimed in a headline that "dangerous asbestos" had been removed. But it did not say how much.

Two days earlier, in an interview with St. Louis radio station KMOX, Blunt was asked if he made a symbolic mistake to re-carpet his office while proposing to cut people off the Medicaid health care program for the poor.

"We had a real problem with mold and asbestos in the office," Blunt told the radio station, according to a transcript provided by the Democratic Party. "A moldy environment, an asbestos ridden environment is not safe and not conducive to productivity."

Asked Tuesday to reconcile his earlier statements with the more recent letter, Blunt again defended the renovation.

"I'm not an expert in asbestos removal and handling, so I don't know at what point asbestos really begins to create additional costs involved in a normal renovation," Blunt said.

Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson said the asbestos could have developed into a major health problem, and noted the office had not received any significant improvements in a dozen years.

The Democratic Party suggested Blunt had overstated the asbestos threat to try to justify the renovation.

"This is yet another example of our new governor being factually challenged," said Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti.

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