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'It is a danger zone': Neighbors worry burned down motel's a health hazard

Kevin Keen

The Desert Inn Motel burned down nearly a year and half ago. Photo: Image by City of Willcox

'It is a danger zone': Neighbors worry burned down motel's a health hazard

CREATED Aug. 13, 2013 - UPDATED: Aug. 14, 2013
WILLCOX, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - The place has been in ruins for months, and neighbors worry it could be making them sick. They called KGUN9 News and health inspectors arrived. What did the professionals find?
The Desert Inn Motel burned down nearly a year and half ago. KGUN9 investigated who’s failed to clean up the Willcox property, littered with charred wood, metal and brick.
“It's not a good first impression,” resident Melissa DiPeso told KGUN9 then.
But the enormous eyesore was the least of many neighbors' concerns. They wanted to know: Is the site safe?
“It is a danger zone for us here,” one resident said.
The motel's nearly 50 years old so the concern was there’s asbestos and that harmful material could be easily carried away by wind and rain because roofs are caved in and walls are knocked down.
“If there is asbestos, what's it doing to the rest of the community?” DiPeso asked.
“Why is it that we're all allowed to live and breathe the contents of this?” business owner Shawn Benavides added.
Those are basic questions, and the city didn’t give citizens satisfying answers.
Reporter Kevin Keen asked then city manager Pat McCourt, “Is what is on that property safe?”
“You know, we don't know, Kevin,” said McCourt, who’s since retired.
McCourt explained no agency had inspected the site for hazardous materials like asbestos. He said the city had the option of assuming the site did, in fact, have asbestos without such an inspection. He said the city took that option.
That position didn’t comfort residents, who wanted a definitive test.
“If you think you have asbestos, pull someone in. Have it tested,” said Marlin Easthouse, former Willcox mayor. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist.”
KGUN9 called state and local health departments, as well as the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
ADEQ then dispatched a team of inspectors, who took pictures and samples of things like pipe insulation and a chunk of ceiling.
The tests concluded “no deficiencies found." In other words, they came back negative for asbestos above levels set by regulations.
“What we found is that the materials that we tested didn't have high enough concentrations of asbestos-containing materials,” said Eric Massey, air quality division director.
Keen asked Massey “Is it safe for the people who live and work next to that site?” 
“What we can say is that the materials that we tested when our inspectors go and take a look at those facilities and take those kinds of samples -- that they have a trained eye and know exactly what kinds of materials have asbestos in them,” Massey said. “They sample those materials and all of those samples came back negative and said they were not regulated quantities of asbestos in them.”
If the tests had come back positive, crews would be required to follow certain procedures whenever the building is demolished. Those procedures include controls so dust doesn’t escape and proper disposal of the waste.
To play it safe, the ADEQ report recommended the site still be demolished following those procedures.
Neighbors are relieved. But the eyesore remains.
The city of Willcox is working to have the courts find out who's responsible for cleaning up the mess.