Battle over old hospital use continues
In an emergency meeting held last month regarding the shut down of the old hospital building in the wake of the discovery of approximately 15,000 square feet of asbestos, Stillwater County Commissioner Maureen Davey said the matter had been “sensationalized” and “blown up.”
The May 19 Friday meeting was called by Davey and Commissioner Dennis Shupak, to which Commissioner Mark Crago and Stillwater County Attorney Nancy Rohde were summoned.
Normally, only one commissioner is in the office on Fridays. The News listened to the official recording of the meeting kept in the Clerk & Recorder’s Office.
Davey’s comments about the matter being “sensationalized” were made after Crago and Rohde both expressed strong concerns with liability issues stemming from demolition work already done in the building during which asbestos was disturbed.
The meeting opened with Shupak referring to a report from Northern Industrial Hygiene about mold testing conducted at the old hospital, the West Annex and the Meadowlark Assisted Living Center.
“It’s clear,” said Shupak. “There’s no problem working in there (the old hospital).”
Asbestos testing also came back at safe levels, said Shupak.
In addition to the report, a representative of Northern was accessible through a conference call and told the group that based on lab results from testing conducted for both mold and asbestos, the buildings were safe.
“We don’t think that building is contaminated such as it can’t be worked in,” said the representative.
In addition, Davey said she consulted the county’s insurance reprepresentative, who reviewed the report and said he did not find anything “actionable” from a legal standpoint.
Northern was hired to conduct air and wipe samples after the discovery of the asbestos and evidence that it had been disturbed. That first company, Weston, did not conduct mold testing. Northern had conducted mold testing at the building for the hospital in 2005.
The good reports from the insurance company and Northern did little to ease the concerns of Crago, Rohde and facilities supervisor Jerry Bokma — all of whom expressed concern with liability issues from what has already occurred as well as with public perception of what is going on.
A QUESTION OF LIABILITY
Rohde explained that because the regulations that mandate how asbestos material must be handled were not followed when Bokma’s crews had conducted demolition at the old hospital approximately two years ago, the county is already liable.
Those regulations include obtaining a permit from the DEQ and having all work done by an asbestos-certified person. The regulations were not followed because Bokma did not realize there was asbestos in the material being worked on.
For that reason alone, Rohde said the county must move ahead very cautiously and why Bokma and his crews can only be allowed back in the building to get tools, they should not be allowed to use the building as a workspace.
Rohde also told Davey she needed to realize that Rohde does not agree with the insurance company’s take.
“There’s a conflict…with the insurance company and your legal advisor,” said Rohde.
“To me, an insurance carrier is good only when a claim is made. I don’t know how you take legal consultation…I don’t know how you advance something we could be sued so hard for ‘because the insurance company said it was ok’,” said Crago.
Crago also said that because asbestos had already been disturbed, it is too much of a risk to allow anyone to use the building as a workspace because an accidental wall-puncture could create more problems.
“I believe we have jeopardized ourselves as a county immensely by the work we have done in there,” said Crago.
“IT'S TOO BIG A CONTROVERSY”
Bokma said he would do whatever he was instructed to do, but said the points Crago had made were reasons that he “really would like somewhere else to perform my work.”
Bokma said the building has become “too big a controversy” and people perceive that work is being done. “People think we are secretly remodeling,” said Bokma.
Bokma also had questions about the presence of mold in the old hospital, which he said is visible. Bokma directed those questions at the Northern representative, asking what the symptoms of exposure to high levels of mold spores would be the long-term complications of exposure to mold.
The representative responded that mold exposure symptoms tend to be cold-flu symptoms and that for most people, there are typically no long-term complications related to mold exposure.
Bokma also questioned the Northern representative about the visible presence of mold in the building, and was told there is not always a correlation between visible mold and airborne mold concentrations as it depends on factors such as the growth cycle of the mold.
Bokma’s questions about mold led to Crago asking the Northern representative if air deodorizer would have had any impact on air sample tests that were conducted. Crago said it appeared as if a high level of deodorizer had been released into the building the day prior to the testing. The Northern representative responded that unless it was a great volume, he did not think it would have impacted the test results.
“Who would have done that?” asked Bokma.
“I don’t know. It’s the first time in five years the building smelled like you could tolerate to walk into it,” said Crago, who had been at the building bringing his child to a 4-H meeting.
Davey started to counter Crago, saying she had been in the building numerous times when it smelled fine, but he cut her off.
“We can agree to disagree but I know for a fact that the Sunday night before they did their test, that building smelled completely different than it had in the last four years,” said Crago. “It just seemed strange that the building smelled so good right before the test.”
BUILDING TO REMAIN CLOSED
In the end, Davey said she would go along with allowing Bokma and his crews to retrieve their tools from the building and not making them use it as a workspace, acknowledging that he did not want to return to the building.
“Well if you don’t feel comfortable about working in there, I don’t want you to work in there,” said Davey. Davey also assured Bokma that he had done nothing intentionally wrong.
“It’s just the political situation that we’re in here. It’s being used as a real tool to sensationalize the whole thing,” said Davey.
Rohde said she disagreed with some of that statement, saying the “liability is going to attach at some point” if someone becomes ill from working in that building and that it could happen in one year, or 10 years from now.
SPECTRUM ARCHITECTS WITHDRAWS TEAM
Citing the interest in exploring options for new county office space other than remodeling the old hospital, Spectrum Group Architects has withdrawn it services to Stillwater County.
“Given the apparent interest in exploring numerous options for a variety of county facilities than what was originally planned for, Spectrum understands that the direction for the County Offices/Law & Justice Center will be taking a different direction than initially intended, with that course yet to be defined. We respectfully withdraw our team and professional services, allowing Stillwater County to pursue another direction,” wrote Spectrum Group Architect’s Kathleen L. Armstrong in the May 30 letter to the Stillwater County commissioners.
The letter arrived at the commissioner’s office last Thursday, June 1.
Spectrum Group Architects was hired in 2012 to conduct a feasibility study to see if the old hospital could be remodeled to accommodate county offices currently housed in an aged and crowded courthouse. After several county officials — chiefly 22nd Judicial District Judge Blair Jones — voiced concerns that only one option was being considered, the study was expanded to eventually include four or five possible options.
Jones, Stillwater County Sheriff Cliff Brophy, Undersheriff Chip Kem, an historic architecture specialist and at least one citizen voiced objections to the county’s continued use of Spectrum over what they called incomplete and some inaccurate information presented at public meetings by Spectrum.
The county paid Spectrum $75,412.88 for that feasibility study.