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CWA

Welcome to the Dungeon

Union sues over ‘unsafe’ state building basement

September 24, 2013, 12:00 am
Three years ago, several Public Education Department employees stationed in the basement of the agency’s old government building started complaining about similar breathing problems.

Michelle Lewis, an educational consultant with PED who also serves as secretary for the Communications Workers of America Local 7076, recalls three Information Technology staffers who worked in the basement of the Apodaca Building and had symptoms that included trouble breathing, forgetting things, not being able to walk long distances and daylong fatigue.

“People in the building were saying that at the end of the day their heads were throbbing,” Lewis says.

One of those employees was Norman Vigil, an IT systems manager who claims the basement air conditions led to an eventual diagnosis of “traumatic neurotoxicity.” He’s had trouble concentrating, difficulty with his memory and depression during the past few years.

“My doctors have linked my condition to the presence of toxic mold as well as chemical agents in and around my workspace,” he wrote in a sworn court affidavit last week. (Vigil didn’t return SFR’s phone calls for this story.)

Amid concerns from the workers, the union hired Healthy Living Spaces, a local firm run by indoor environmental consultant Daniel Stih, to investigate the matter in March 2011. Stih says he found mold in the wall between the women’s bathroom and break room as well as a leak of Freon-227ea in the fire prevention system.

The study was enough to convince PED to move its IT staff upstairs, where they’ve been ever since. But earlier this month, managers announced they would begin relocating roughly 20 workers back down to the basement. Each side tells a different story of what’s happened since.

“PED leadership met with union leadership on Sept. 5th to explain the move and they did not protest,” PED spokesman Larry Behrens writes in an email to SFR. “The first hint of contention we heard was nearly two weeks later through the press event held in front of our building.”

But the problem, the union alleges, is that PED still hasn’t proven that the basement’s air quality conditions are fixed. They also fault the agency for leaving out the possibility of historical contamination in the area from old gas stations, dry cleaners and funeral parlors.

“It’s not that we didn’t protest,” Lewis says. “We asked for additional information that has not been provided.”

That includes how often air tests would be conducted and whether repairs had been made on the ventilation system. Lewis says PED Deputy Secretary Paul Aguilar told her on Sept. 5 that he “would get back to you on that.” One week later, Lewis sent an email with the same questions. She says she still doesn’t have the answers.

By Sept. 13, workers had begun moving to the basement. The following week, CWA held a demonstration during the lunch hour and soon filed a restraining order, a preliminary injunction and a writ of mandamus to stop PED’s plans.

“Because of this lack of communication to employees and lack of action by the PED,” the lawsuit reads, “the CWA fears that recognized hazards continue to exist in the building and that such hazards may cause death or serious physical harm.”

PED Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera quickly responded with a letter to union lawyers asserting that her agency had already taken care of the problem by spending more than $250,000 on basement cleanup and upgrades.

“The remediation included installing a new ventilation system in the basement, cleaning all duct work throughout the entire building, repairing any leaks found, moving employees out of the basement, and removing some carpeting,” Skandera wrote.

She also attached a study completed in April by Southwest Environmental Health that deemed the PED basement’s indoor environment safe. The study tested for mold, indoor temperature, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

It concludes that mold found was “very low,” ventilation was “within recommended limits” and the building’s environment was not “contributing to an unsafe or unhealthy environment.”

Stih, however, criticizes PED’s report for leaving out testing for the several volatile organic compounds both of his studies found and failing to disclose the method it used to measure for mold. At five pages, PED’s report is also significantly shorter than Stih’s second air quality report from October 2011, which totals more than 100 pages. He also recalls still finding evidence of mold and Freon during that time.

“A mass spectrum analysis of the air was not performed by Southwest Environmental Health,” Stih writes in an email to SFR. “That’s why they didn’t find Freon and other [volatile organic compounds] mentioned in my first two reports.”

The union has managed one victory in the meantime: a temporary stalling of employee relocation to the basement. The First Judicial District Court is scheduled to hear the case on Friday, Sept. 27. 

 

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