Westminster has had three projects in three years to remove asbestos from municipal buildings, and is starting a fourth.
The $14,287 contract to remove asbestos from the newly acquired Longwell Municipal Center, the former National Guard Armory on Longwell Avenue, is Westminster's largest asbestos removal project to date.
The City Council awarded the contract to Marcor Environmental Inc. of Elkridge last week.
City officials knew the old armory contained asbestos before Mayor W. Benjamin Brown began negotiating to buy the building from the state in 1992.
A 1989 survey prompted the Maryland National Guard to ask city officials to post "Asbestos -- Hazardous" signs and to limit access to the basement boiler room, the site of the major concentration of asbestos.
The basement housed the city Police Department at the time.
Earlier removal projects at the city maintenance shop on Railroad Avenue and at City Hall have involved small amounts of asbestos, most of it used as insulation for heating pipes.
"People hear [asbestos] is there and an alarm goes off, which it should," said Thomas B. Beyard, the city's director of planning and public works. But city officials have to assess how much asbestos is in a building, its condition and where it is located, he said.
Asbestos was widely used for insulation for decades, until scientists discovered that inhaling its fibers can cause lung problems that range from minor irritations to mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency imposed a phased-in ban in 1989 that will bar the manufacture, use and export of most asbestos products by 1996.
"When it comes to asbestos, a lot of people are under the misconception that all asbestos should be removed," said Michael Sullivan, a Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman.
He said the department recommends that owners of buildings containing the material check it regularly to see if it crumbles to the touch or has breaks.
Either condition can allow the fibers to be released into the air, where people might inhale them.
Removing asbestos and an underground oil storage tank from the Longwell Center are preliminary steps before the building can be renovated, Mr. Beyard said.
Renovation plans include converting the basement for the city finance department, making the building accessible to the disabled and expanding recreation program space.
Westminster's asbestos removal projects have been linked to renovations.
The state Department of the Environment allows building owners to encapsulate asbestos. Mr. Beyard said encapsulation is fine in areas to which people don't have access, but the city chose to remove the material because it would be difficult to do renovation work while it remained in place.
"Most contractors and engineers have problems working in areas where you have asbestos. It becomes a red flag," he said.
Westminster's earlier asbestos removal projects include:
* The maintenance shop in 1990. The job included removal of 72 feet of pipe insulation from the boiler room and offices when a new furnace was installed. The cost was $1,658.
* City Hall in 1990. About 215 feet of pipe insulation was removed from the basement in renovations that created an office for the city code inspector. An additional office was needed because the council hired a city manager. That project cost $3,875.
* City Hall in 1993. Some 140 feet of pipe insulation was removed from crawl space under first floor offices. The asbestos was discovered by construction workers who were converting the space to disabled-accessible restrooms as part of a larger renovation project. The asbestos removal cost $2,960.