CARSON CITY — The discovery of naturally occurring asbestos in and around Boulder City is delaying work on a $600 million highway bypass around the community while the state Transportation Department tries to figure out how to deal with the issue.
“Is this a showstopper?” asked Gov. Brian Sandoval during a Monday meeting of the state Transportation Board. “This was a bomb that was dropped.”
“More of a show slower-downer,” said John Terry, assistant director for engineering with the agency.
Terry said the agency has never encountered the issue before, although other state transportation agencies have had to deal with the problem.
Because of the finding in a report published by UNLV, a $12 million contract put out to bid for a retaining wall, utilities and other work for the bypass has been canceled.
Terry said the agency needs to perform more sampling, analysis and testing. The board approved as much as $400,000 for the work, he said.
The Boulder City bypass is a priority for state officials. Phase 1 has an estimated completion date of late 2017 to early 2018. The second phase would run south of Boulder City and east to the Hoover Dam bypass bridge. Total project costs are expected to top $600 million.
Sandoval called the bypass one of the most important infrastructure projects for Southern Nevada and a key link in what could become a new Interstate 11 linking Las Vegas and Phoenix.
The presence of naturally occurring asbestos could complicate but shouldn’t derail the construction project, Terry said.
“The issue is not allowing it to become dust,” he said. “It’s a delay. We think we can deal with it, but we don’t know the answers yet.”
Tina Quigley, general manager with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, which is involved in the second phase of the bypass project, said the asbestos issue so far does not appear to be a major concern but more testing is under way.
Only low levels of asbestos was found in two of 10 samples taken by the agency, but two hundred more tests are now being performed at a cost of $259,000, she said.
If the levels don’t change, the dust control requirements already in place for projects in Clark County will be satisfactory for dealing with the issue, Quigley said.
After the meeting, Sandoval said his concerns with the findings have to do both with health and safety of residents in the area and the potential for delays in an important road project.
“But the fact that this research was conducted without anybody knowing; I think it would have been extremely helpful for the department to have been made aware of this so they could have worked together on it,” he said. “This will delay the project, and we’re going to be spending a substantial amount of money to hire a consultant to study it ourselves.”
Messages left for Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, two UNLV professors leading the research, were not returned.
Both their names are on a peer-reviewed study published in November’s journal of the Soil Science Society of America. In it, the research team describes the surprise discovery of potentially toxic, asbestos-type minerals in rocks and dust from Boulder City to the southeastern edge of the Las Vegas Valley.
Buck has called it the first discovery of naturally occurring asbestos in Southern Nevada.
“At this point we know enough to know there is a hazard. We don’t know what the risk is,” she told the Review-Journal in December. “Until we know more, it would be a good idea to avoid dust from those areas.”
The study area takes in all of Boulder City and a wide swath of the Eldorado Valley, with tendrils that reach to the shore of Lake Mead and into the oldest parts of Henderson.
Asbestos fibers can’t be absorbed through the skin, but if inhaled or swallowed, they can spawn a range of deadly diseases, such as cancer, that might not develop for a decade or decades.
Buck said there is no known safe amount of asbestos fibers, but not everyone who is exposed gets sick.
Review-Journal writer Henry Brean contributed to this report.