A vacant Navy Department building in Anacostia scheduled to be converted for use as a homeless shelter contains asbestos, a Navy spokesman confirmed yesterday.
The cancer-causing material is not exposed to the air, however, and presents no danger to the 600 homeless residents who are expected to occupy the World War II-era building temporarily by mid-October, Lt. Stephen Pietropaoli said.
"We are aware that there is encapsulated asbestos in the building, which is pretty much normal for buildings built in that time frame," he said. "The asbestos is sealed with paint or other materials."
Dixon Arnett, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deputy undersecretary who led the effort to select the building for use as a shelter, said he was unaware of the asbestos and will take steps to assure there will be no health hazard to residents of the two-story structure at 1900 Anacostia Dr. SE.
Jim Hunter, an assistant to Arnett, said he was aware of the asbestos and that the contractor who is renovating the building would seal off any exposed asbestos that may yet be discovered.
HHS and the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless last week announced a plan to move the approximately 600 residents of a crumbling facility operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence at 425 Second St. NW to the Navy building, where they would be housed until April 30 while the Coalition renovates four smaller shelters for long-term use.
Coalition President Elisabeth Huguenin, who also was unaware of the asbestos, said she received assurances from HHS officials yesterday that there was no health hazard.
"We would welcome any kind of investigation . . . to settle the issue," she said. "We have no intention of hurting anybody."
According to Hunter, asbestos insulation covers the main steam line that connects the building to a heating plant 200 yards away. The asbestos-covered pipe, which is sheathed in steel casing, would be severed from the building. A different pipe, connected to a portable boiler, would deliver heat.
Hunter said that as the contractor performs electrical and plumbing work, checks will be made to "continuously review" whether any more asbestos is in the facility.
"It has been a critical concern from day one that we be able to mitigate any problem that might arise," he said.
Dave Ryan, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said asbestos poses no danger if it is sealed off and no asbestos fibers get into the air.
"Just because there is asbestos in a building, it doesn't mean there is any danger as long as it is properly encapsulated," he said.
The Navy building was used as headquarters for the 1985 inaugural committee and before that was the site of the Defense Intelligence College.