Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Bezhiigwan Gallery Flooded

Colin Neary: This is a Niijii Radio News Update. At 7:30 A.M. Monday October 29, 2012 the City of Park Rapids reported a sewer blockage in the vicinity the Bezhiigwan Art Gallery. Bezhiigwan is located at the Old Library at the corner of 2nd Street South and Park Avenue South in Park Rapids. The blockage was cleared by city maintenance, but resulted in raw sewage flooding the basement of Bezhiigwan. Ten days after the spill occurred on Wednesday November 7, 2012 Mary and Gordon Van Wert, owners of Bezhiigwan, returned from an installment in Duluth to find that the basement of their gallery had been flooded with raw sewage. While the backflow at Bezhiigwan was functioning properly, the sewer blockage exploded through a toilet. As a result, the City of Park Rapids was liable for all damages to the gallery and the Van Werts had zero liability. We will now hear from Mary Paula Van Wert about what Bezhiigwan represents and how it operated prior to the sewer blockage:

Mary Van Wert: We try to collect art from all over the world. We are not just exclusively Ojibwe. We like the co-mingling of cultures and resources, and this area is rich with Finnish tradition, Polish tradition, and Irish tradition, along with the Ojibwe. But the Ojibwe has never been explored as thoroughly as we feel that it could be, so we’re really trying to bring a lot of items in from old and new, so that people can get an idea of the true Ojibwe spirit that we so enjoy at our household. Most of our products from the Native people come from White Earth Reservation, Red Lake, or Leech Lake. We try to spend at least two thirds of our profit that we make here on a program to give local children summertime employment. We also do regalia rescue. There’s something about regalia going into a pawn shop that really doesn’t work for me.

Colin Neary: Upon finding the raw sewage in his basement on Wednesday November 7, 2012, Gordon Van Wert immediately contacted the City of Park Rapids and reported the spill in the basement of Bezhiigwan. On the same day the Van Werts also contacted the Fargo-based company Steamatic, which specializes in clean-up of toxic spills. Steamatic employees arrived the next day fully-equipped in hazmat suits and quoted the Van Werts at $26,000 for the clean-up. The Van Werts did not immediately pay for the decontamination and remediation because they had zero liability for the damages that resulted from the blockage. The Van Werts’ lawyer Darrell Carter advised them not to pay out of pocket, as that would have allegedly made the Van Werts legally liable for the bill of clean-up.

Public Works Superintendent Scott Burligname also contacted Gordon Van Wert on Thursday November 8, 2012, notifying Gordon that he should contact Avinson Insurance Company in regards to filing a claims report. An Avinson Insurance representative referred the Van Werts to the League of Minnesota Cities insurance company. Although the Van Werts contacted the League of Minnesota Cities on Thursday November 8, the insurer did not respond to the Van Werts’ claim five days after. League of Minnesota Cities representative Mark Nigard visited Bezhiigwan the next day Wednesday November 14, and Gordon Van Wert reports that Nigard refused to accept Steamatic’s quote of $26,000 for the settlement. Instead, Nigard insisted on contracting the Brainerd-based company ServePro, which quoted Mr. Nigard at $16,000.

A ServePro representative did not contact the Van Werts until December 3, more than a month after the spill, and did not arrive at Bezhiigwan until nearly two weeks later. Additionally, ServePro employees were not prepared to clean-up a toxic spill since the Van Werts report they arrived dressed in t-shirts and jeans without protective masks. According the Van Werts, ServePro employees brought only wet vacs for the initial clean-up and were desecrating sacred objects that remained in the basement, such as the jingle dresses they were kicking around. Fortunately, the Van Werts were planning to remodel their basement and had removed much of the art up-stairs. However, due to ServePro’s negligence all of the art upstairs was damaged as well.

When ServePro returned for its second round of clean-up, several weeks after their initial visit, they sprayed Oxy-Mold MX-500 fogger in the basement and upstairs of the building. Lars Knobloch of Nordic Home Inspection, who conducted an environmental evaluation of Bezhiigwan after ServePro’s initial clean-up, stated that there was no need to spray the fogger in the upstairs. The upstairs was not affected by the sewage back-up. Not only was spraying the fogger in the upstairs unnecessary, but Knobloch says that ServePro employees were irresponsible to not remove all of the artwork before the fogger was applied. At the time of the spill Gordon Van Wert was working on a major installment for a patron of the arts in Paris. Due to the damage to the sculpture caused by ServePro Gordon lost the commission. Here is Gordon explaining how this one sale would have saved Bezhiigwan and the Van Werts’ home, both of which might be foreclosed upon as soon as January 1, 2014:

Gordon Van Wert: It would have made one of our balloon payments at the gallery and at the house too. That one deal would have taken care of us for another six to twelve months. We would have been in pretty good shape. So, I mean, all of the sculptures were all compromised, so I have nothing to sell.

Colin Neary: The Van Werts are not able to provide an exact estimate of how much they lost from the spill and ServePro’s negligence. However, between the damaged artwork, the time Gordon has lost on sculptures in-production, and the time he will lose remediating completed sculptures, losses are probably in the millions of dollars.

There is also a serious health concern about the Bezhiigwan building. Lars Knobloch of Nordic Home Inspection was hired by the Van Werts to evaluate ServePro’s clean-up. During his first visit on February 4, 2013 Knobloch found obvious signs of negligence, such as mold spore levels more than twenty times the safety limit and black mold levels more than two-hundred times than the safety level. Though Mr. Nigard was not legally obligated to contract a third-party evaluation of the blockage prior to clean-up, by doing so he might have prevented negligence on behalf of ServePro.

Mary Van Wert also reports she was initially directed by Mr. Nigard on Thursday November 15, 2012 that she and Gordon should begin out tearing the carpet out of the Bezhiigwan basement, which was still flooded at the time. Mary Van Wert was scheduled for hernia surgery the following day Friday November 16. Additionally, Gordon was scheduled for hernia surgery the following Monday November 19. Mark Nigard was made aware of both of these appointments. Neither Mary nor Gordon Van Wert were in the physical condition to begin remediating the toxic spill, which they had zero liability for. Additionally, Mary Van Wert reports having a violent physical reaction from her first exposure to the sewage and mold spores that had grown in Bezhiigwan’s basement:

Mary Van Wert: My lungs started filling up with fluid. I went directly to Dr. Erickson’s office. I couldn’t breathe. He put me in the hospital. I was on oxygen and I was let go home that evening. He wrote it on a prescription pad that if I went in there again he could not be my doctor because he could not guarantee the results of what my lungs’ reaction would be to the environment. He said he wanted to see further air work done in there.

Colin Neary: More than a year after the sewer blockage and flooding of the gallery in 2012, Bezhiigwan remains closed to the public. Many of the damages the Van Werts claim are the liability of ServePro and the City of Park Rapids, such as damaged artwork and the basement ceiling tiles that have become saturated with moisture, remain in dispute by the League of Minnesota Cities. Steamatic, the company the Van Werts had initially recommended, was hired to clean up ServePro’s negligent clean-up after that company was removed as contractor. Since the entire process only cost the League of Minnesota Cities just under $20,000 compared to Steamatic’s initial estimate of $26,000, Darrin Richardson, Mark Nigard’s supervisor, considers this a success.

February 20 was the last day work was done on Bezhiigwan, which is nearly ten months ago, and Bezhiigwan has still not passed environmental inspection. While Darrin Richardson has stated the League of Minnesota Cities has contacted the Van Werts several times since that date, he also said the League of Minnesota Cities will deal with the owners of the building. Deprived of their livelihood, the possibility of the Van Werts having their gallery and home foreclosed on is very much a possibility as soon as January 1, 2014. The Van Werts’ lawyer Darrell Carter has not responded or reported even preliminary stages of litigation. We conclude today’s program with the words of Gordon Van Wert, who reports this whole ordeal has stolen seven years of his work:

Gordon Van Wert: We’re not just a logo on the side of a helmet or something. I want the people to see how powerful, you know, and stoic and wonderful that we really are. It’s just and to work at this my whole life, and this last seven years of my life that’s all tied up in my gallery right now that I can’t sell, which is contaminated, and now I got to start over. Set me back seven years I went back with this spill thing. So I’m kind of stuck in, I don’t know, it’s almost like a time warp because I’m starting over. I’ve never had to do that before.

Colin Neary: This has been a Niijii Radio News Update. Thank you for listening.


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