Courthouse closing during cold snap

Asbestos, chilly rooms, and chimney issues bedevil the administration of justice.

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The courthouse in Edgartown is closed after asbestos was discovered in the boiler room. — Michael Cummo

Updated Nov. 14 at 3:50 pm

The Dukes County Courthouse will be completely closed Thursday and Friday to make emergency repairs, Edgartown District Court Magistrate Liza Williamson told The Times Wednesday afternoon. The order came from Boston, she said. People in need of restraining orders or other urgent district court business should go to their local police departments, she said.

Earlier Wednesday, it appeared not all of the courthouse would shutter, even though denizens of the building wore coats and hats at their desks.

Citing cold temperatures and a lack of heat throughout the building, probate court closed for the day Wednesday a bit before noon; district court staff were also heading home.

Daphne Devries, register of probate, said probate court closed “because we are freezing.”

District court was also closing, though Williamson, the clerk magistrate, held magistrate hearings in the courtroom, which was relatively toasty.

In a statement read over the telephone Wednesday afternoon, Williamson conveyed her determination to keep the criminal court system functioning. A bit over an hour later, court system brass undercut her proposed efforts with the closing order.

“The building is still without heat provided by the [boiler],” she said. “Our office, which is the district court office, and the probate office are about 40°. The space heaters do not help much. And the biggest effect they have is that they keep blowing the fuses and the computers shut down. However, mindful of our important role with regard to public safety in our community, the district court clerk’s office is open. I have sent my staff home due to the temperature, but I am here for any issues you may have. I will be here regular business hours until 4:30 pm …”

Paulo DeOliveira, registrar of deeds, said he planned to keep the Registry of Deeds open Wednesday so long as there were court officers guarding the front entrance. It too will be closed Thursday and Friday.

Several courthouse workers mentioned that the additional snafus with the heating system revolve around the lining of the boiler furnace, but all deferred to Dukes County Manager Martina Thornton for a definitive diagnosis of the problem. Thornton could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

With temperatures hovering near freezing Wednesday, the 1858 building opened for business even though its furnace is not working. Some offices within the building have electric heaters, but other portions of the building are chilly.

All of this follows a week of closings and openings having to do with the discovery of asbestos in a pipe for the courthouse boiler.

On Tuesday, county manager Martina Thornton told The Times that a pipe containing asbestos was removed Monday, and the building is back open for daily business.

The courthouse was closed Thursday due to the discovery of asbestos in a crawlspace, Thornton told The Times.

The courthouse reopened Friday, even though an asbestos removal company had yet to deal with the issue in the courthouse boiler room. After being closed for the federal holiday Monday, the courthouse reopened for business on Tuesday.

The asbestos removal company was scheduled to arrive on Island Thursday, but did not give the correct dimensions of the company’s vehicle to the Steamship Authority and was not allowed on the boat.

Erika Gully-Santiago, a spokesperson for the trial court, told The Times on Thursday that the courthouse would be reopening on Friday since the abatement work would not be done. She said it would be business as usual.

On Thursday, county commission chairman John Alley confirmed to The Times that the furnace in the courthouse broke, and as it was being worked on, “someone determined that that piece of pipe probably contained some asbestos wrap,” Alley said.

The county, which owns the courthouse, was made aware of the asbestos problem last week after a chimney company doing work on the building’s furnace noticed a pipe in a crawlspace that contained asbestos. On Wednesday, commissioners approved transferring $25,000 for the asbestos removal and repairs to the heating system.

Thornton told The Times that the company hired to remove the asbestos said the courthouse did not have to be closed because the pipe that contained it was located in the boiler room, ensuring there would be no contamination to the rest of the building. Thornton notified the trial court in Boston, and the court decided to close the building.

“If the court offices are open or not, that is not my decision,” Thornton said.

The Times encountered outgoing Superior Court Clerk Joe Sollitto exiting the courthouse Thursday morning along with a trial court officer. Sollitto had no comment other than to say he ducked in to address an urgent legal matter.

Now that the asbestos has been removed, the chimney company will install a new pipe.

Asbestos, once used regularly for insulation and fireproofing, is no longer used, and many of its applications were forbidden by the Toxic Substances Control Act. “When handled, asbestos can separate into microscopic-size particles that remain in the air and are easily inhaled,” according to the federal Centers for Disease Control website. “Persons occupationally exposed to asbestos have developed several types of life-threatening diseases, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma.”

The courthouse, which is located in the center of Edgartown, was built in 1858 from local brick, according to a piece written by Times columnist Chris Baer.

Reporter Rich Saltzberg contributed to this story.