Saturday, January 8, 2011

Courthouse Update--Commissioner Warner's Statement on Air Quality Issues

In This Issue:

- Courthouse Update
-----Includes Commissioner Warner's Statement on Air Quality Issues
-----Asbestos Issues
-----Employee Rights & Oregon OSHA

[Edited 1/9/11]

Courthouse Update
Fred Warner's Statement on Air Quality Issues

After reading Jayson Jacoby's fine article (County closes Courthouse basement) in the New Years Eve Herald, some of the statements by County officials left a lot of people, including County and State employees who work in the building, with more questions than answers. Some of the questions had to do with whether the County was even going to be privy to the full air quality test results, and if they weren't, how could the Commissioners, who are the responsible heads of County government, be assured that their employees and the public were safe. It seemed outrageous, if not completely absurd, that a public government entity could be denied access to test results necessary to proper governing, by an insurance company that was hired by the County to insure and protect itself and its employees from risk.

On Monday morning, I sent an e-mail to Karen Spencer, Fred Warner Jr., and Mark Bennett [oops--or was that Bark? Sorry Mark] , which asked a number of questions (see below) concerning the County's relationship with City County Insurance Services (CIS) and CIS's service providers, as well as questions about air quality in the Courthouse. In a Monday afternoon phone call, Karen Spencer told me she had had no success in getting CIS to release information to her and that it would take someone higher on the chain to get them to do it. She also said she had asked Commissioner Warner for a response to some of my questions. In the meantime, I was contacting state agencies to ask a few more questions.

Also, when I was still waiting for a response from the County to Monday's questions, The Baker City Herald ran an editorial (Time to come clean) On Wednesday, stating that Commissioner Warner did speak with them that morning and said that he had first seen the test results on Monday. They also noted, accurately I think, that "... both employees and contractors did occasionally go into the basement between the holiday and Dec. 23. They deserve to know what was in the air they breathed, or what might have been."

Well finally . . . on Friday, four days after I sent the questions in, I received answers to them from Commissioner Warner.

Here are the re-numbered questions with Commissioner Warner's answers interspersed:

Commissioner Warner's preamble:
First off, I do commend my staff for dealing with a trying situation. They did yeomans work to work with our insurance company, our employees, the contractors and the public to assess the damage, create a plan of action to deliver needed public services,and to protect the health and welfare of our employees and the public.

1. Is the article in the Herald accurate as to statements by County officials?
The article by the DH is essentially correct. What all County officials said was accurate information. The crux of the matter is that our insurance company, CIS is running the remediation and restoration of the Courthouse. They are doing the contracting and paying the bills. They have there processes and abide by them. The insurance company does keep the County, me specifically, in the loop on what they are doing and who is doing things. Prior to Jan. 1st, we had multiple people interfacing with the insurance company but I am the lead on the project specifically. Nothing sinister about this, just that I represent the Board of Commissioners and we are the accountable body.

On Dec. 19th, CIS hired a firm to do air quality tests to monitor spore and/or mold in the air. They tested 3 areas on the 2nd floor (circuit court area), 3 areas on the main floor (lobby and offices) and 3 areas in the basement. The test was for low, moderate and high levels for potential mold growth. 7 areas tested as low.

One test area, basement entry tested moderate and the basement vault tested high. The word we got from the testing company was that drying those 2 areas was the recommended action. Both areas had wall moisture readings of over 90% humidity. The decision was made to close off the basement to allow for consistent drying and we did not want anyone in the area because of potential air quality issues. All of the professionals involved in this decision still reiterate to the County that the air is not toxic but in need of drying out and further testing. I continue to believe that the County acted prudently with the information that we had and still have. Busy Bee is continuing to dry the basement and is making considerable progress in lowering the moisture content in the vault.

2. Has the County asked City/County Insurance Services to release the results of the air sampling tests to the County? If so, did they refuse to release them?
On January 3rd, I received a copy of the air quality tests. I read them and they are quite technical. I communicated with CIS about the nature of the tests and the propriety of the tests. They are their test results. I believe that a summary of the tests is in the public interest. I have attempted to give that summary. It is that all of the Courthouse except the basement vault and the entryway have low levels of air borne spores. The hallway has moderate levels of air borne spores. The basement vault has high levels of air borne spores. Until, the moisture content gets below 15-20%, their will be moderate to high levels of air borne spores.

Access is restricted in the basement of the Courthouse. All personnel were moved from the basement after the leak. Employees and contractors have moved in and out of the area moving files and we had the mailboxes in an undamaged area of the basement until we had the air quality test. When we learned of the test results, we moved the mail room to North Baker.

3. Does the County think they have a right to the air sample results?
I believe that we have a right to be told about any results which affect the ongoing operation of the County and if any employees or the public could be at risk because of those results. I believe that CIS has kept the County in the information loop.

4. Is there now, and has there ever been in the past, any concerns about asbestos in the building?
Asbestos is always a concern. Initially, it was one of the concerns prior to the tearing out of the damaged areas. The professional people(Sid Johnson & Co., Busy Bee and the insurance adjuster) determined that asbestos was not an issue. The potential for tile with asbestos was apparent and Johnson handled the tile as if it had asbestos. It was water soaked and that is the preferred way of disposing of it. They bagged it and disposed of it.

5. Does the air sample testing test for asbestos, volatile organics, and other potential contaminants other than mold?
The air sampling tests did not test for asbestos, volatile organics and other potential contaminants. I asked the professionals this question and they said based on their assessment this was not needed.

6. When does the County plan to tell citizens what the costs have been to date, what the cost of repairing the damage is estimated to be, and how much of these costs will be covered by City/County Insurance Services?
The costs to Baker County will be minimal. We have a $1000 deductible. We have no copay. We are billing CIS for all moving expenses, additional operating expenses, equipment damaged and any other covered costs. I do not have that dollar figure, but it will all be reimbursed by CIS. The bids to reconstruct I believe are due today to CIS. They have told me they will discuss the bids with us before awarding the contract. We have been involved with the scope of work to make sure we pick carpet, tile , paint etc. CIS will be putting the building back as it was. They will not doing additions which were not there prior to the damage. Baker County will be responsible for upgrades if we want during the rebuilding. The only costs that we will incur are that we will be doing some additional wiring and internet line consolidation while the walls are out and will take out redundant pipes and lines while the building is opened up. All costs for reconstruction will be borne by CIS.

[I might add that my understanding of the costs incurred up to Christmas is that they amount to about right at $100,000.00. - Chris]

7. When does the County plan to explain to citizens what the chain of events was that led to the flooding of the Courthouse? I don't think that has been done beyond the valves cracked about the time we had the low, but not unusually low, temperatures in November.
A valve in the ceiling of the 2nd floor broke on a weekend. My concern is could it happen again. We are taking steps to make sure it cannot happen again. This particular pipe went to a heater (we have 52 heaters in the courthouse) in the ceiling above the Judges chambers. It had not worked for a number of years. Presumably, since it did not work, the water flow through that valve and pipe were less than other pipes. I have been assured that we have no heaters that are out that have water coming to them. The new protocol being if a heater is out of service we drain the water from that loop. Additional, our new heat monitoring system has the ability to have sensors which monitor pipe pressure. If we have a droppage, it will trigger calls to County personnel. We have also insulated all ceiling pipes. I am also going to ask CIS to send their risk people to assess the entire attic and areas where we have water systems.

Baker County Commissioners (L to R): Carl E. Stiff, M.D., Fred Warner, Jr., Tim L. Kerns

Asbestos Issues

It was brought to my attention that asbestos [a good history here] might be an issue in the 101 year old Courthouse, but not having read up on it since mid 2004, I did some searching and ultimately ended up calling the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

As many people know, asbestos can cause lung and mesothelioma cancer, and asbestosis.

DEQ maintains a very informative site about asbestos, building survey requirements, abatement rules, and other protective regulations at Air Quality Asbestos Program. One of the links, DEQ’s Building Survey Requirement, is a simple but informative fact sheet that explains when building owners need to do an asbestos survey of their building.

Was an Asbestos Survey Required?

One of the state DEQ officials told me that a building survey was not required for the situation at the Courthouse, although he felt one should be done. Of course this same official told be the "Courthouse will be demolished soon," which has been denied by Commissioner Warner. The following is an exchange via e-mail concerning the need for an asbestos survey prior to the removal of water damaged materials inthe courthouse:

They did not complete an asbestos survey for the building - nor are they required to have the asbestos survey done. The Oregon asbestos rules require a survey to be completed prior to demolition or major renovation (the removal of at least one load supporting member). The Federal rule requires surveys to be completed in K-12 public schools and updated every three years. As this building does not meet any of the criteria above, a survey is not required (but still should have been done).

My response:

The Asbestos Survey Fact sheet says:
What is the survey requirement?
DEQ’s survey rule requires that an inspection be performed before any demolition or renovation activities to determine the presence of friable and nonfriable asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).
[My emphasis]

The above language seems to indicate that a survey may have been required if it meets other criteria in the fact sheet, because removal and renovation was the plan.

Who must get a survey done?
All facility owners, including but not limited to manufacturing facilities, public and private building owners, . . . undertaking a demolition or renovation project will be affected by this rule

The above language seems to indicate that a survey may have been required of the owner if it meets other criteria in the fact sheet pertaining to the definition of renovation.

What is a demolition or renovation project?
Demolition is defined as wrecking that involves the removal of load-supporting members and/or intentional burning. Renovation is defined as altering in any way one or more facility components that does not involve removing a load-supporting member.
[My emphasis]

The above language seems to indicate that a survey should have been required of the owner because it meets the criteria in the fact sheet pertaining to the definition of renovation. (An intention of building demolition has been denied by Supervisor Warner) It appears that the removal of a load bearing member is not required to trigger the survey requirement for a renovation. They have removed wall coverings, ceilings, and floors in large areas of three floors. I believe it also meets the renovation size criteria I saw somewhere because the renovation covers much more than a few to several square feet. It involves major sections, entire ceiling and wall covering in good sized rooms on three floors.

If you would, please explain to me again why there would be no requirement for an asbestos survey in this case, given that it seems to meet the criteria when a major renovation is involved.



Renovation Work in Just One Room--Judge Baxter's Chambers
[See also: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2010
Cole Case (18 months probation) & County Court House Damage
for more photos.]

Official's Response:

This building was not demolished and no major renovation took place. Water damage was caused due to an act of God. I understand that a large volume of material was removed during cleanup. I understand that a portion of a load supporting member was removed. But it was not completely removed. Therefore no major renovation took place and an asbestos survey is not required.

Note that the official did not reply in logical or rational fashion to the argument I presented--he simply made another declaration without applying DEQ's definintion of "renovation." Removal of a load supporting member is part of the definition of "demolition," not "renovation."

I have taken this question up with others at DEQ to see if they would be kind enough to show me where I've erred in my logic or if there is information I'm unaware of that would make the first official's interpretation seem logical and reasonable. It may be, for example, that an important piece of information is missing from the fact sheet which would make it more clear that a survey is not required. Hopefully the interpretation of the rules can be settled to the satisfaction of all in the next week or so. I will report back on this as I become more familiar with the rules.

In any event, whatever the case with asbestos surveys, Commissioner Warner said on Friday that "If we missed a step along the way, then we'll correct it."

It should also be noted that, accordingto the fact sheet:
Who can perform the survey?
The rule requires that an accredited inspector perform the survey. DEQ wants to ensure that the individual doing the inspection is qualified and understands what they need to look for to complete the survey. This training is in accordance with the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) program regulations and the Model Accreditation Program training rules in 40 CFR Part 763.

Here is the list of accredited asbestos survey inspectors maintained on the DEQ website. There are no accredited inspectors from Baker County listed, so it is uncertain if any evaluations by local contractors could serve in place of an asbestos survey by an accredited inspector.

The Employee's Right to a Safe Workplace & OSHA

Back in 1970, before the corporations has solidified their takeover of the entire world, one of our leading environmental Presidents, Richard Nixon of all people, signed into law The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 . It gave workers rights to a safe workplace and tools to help enforce those rights.

Because Oregon DEQ does not regulate indoor air quality, except for asbestos, OSHA is the worker resource to seek out for other indoor air quality issues. Employees who work for state and local governments in Oregon are covered by Oregon OSHA. During this last week, I spoke with people at Oregon OSHA who assured me that even if the general public could not easily force disclosure of the air quality tests at the Courthouse, affected employees could. The spokesperson stated that it was the employer's responsibility to ensure that the insurer makes test results available to employees if requeted. Employees also have the right to file a complaint if they feel their safety related concerned are being ignored by an employer.

Workers' rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Act

Workers are entitled to working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm. To help assure a safe and healthful workplace, OSHA also provides workers with the right to:

Ask OSHA to inspect their workplace;
Use their rights under the law without retaliation and discrimination;
Receive information and training about hazards, methods to prevent harm, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace. The training must be in a language you can understand;
Get copies of test results done to find hazards in the workplace;
Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses;
Get copies of their medical records;

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