‘What in the world just happened?’: Adams County officials baffled by conflicting mold reports from SafeStart

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QUINCY — During a June 28 Zoom meeting to discuss mold problems in the 84,000-square-foot Adams County Courthouse, Larry Schwartz of SafeStart Environmental gave his conclusions about the April testing his company conducted to the 125 people who participated online.

“The real hard facts are, right now, knowing what I know, and I can’t say I’m absolutely right, but my strong professional opinion (is) work should cease in the building,” he said. 

“During the temporary period, maybe people (who) need to be there should wear proper personal protection, N95s or P100s (masks), and when they go home, they should launder their clothing and take a shower. … Anyone coming in the building should wear some PPE protection at this point. That’s my opinion.”

Todd Eyler, assistant state’s attorney for Adams County, couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

“My reaction was, ‘What in the world just happened? What in the world is going on?’” Eyler said. “Because that is not what we were told before.”

‘It’s got to be thought out very carefully how to go about it’

Sixteen days earlier, during another Zoom meeting with county officials, Adams County State’s Attorney Gary Farha asked Schwartz, “Is a remediation program going to cause the courthouse to be shut down for a period of time while the remediation is going on?”

“If the HVAC distribution of air were mapped out carefully on each level, there could maybe be ways of shutting down certain areas at a time and containing them during the remediation,” Schwartz replied.

“It’s got to be thought out very carefully how to go about it. These are critical functions that take place in this building. I mean, they have to go on. There’s got to be a way to think through how to do this in a safe manner. For example, if there were remediation and (it) could be done a level at a time, we recommend lowest levels first because the air rises from lower levels up. … We need much more definition on the pathways of the HVAC systems. That’s going to be a major key (for) how to figure out how to solve this.”

A special meeting of the Adams County Board with only one item on the agenda — a discussion about a recent report on mold in the courthouse — lasted 14 minutes on July 5. Frustrated members of the County Board were waiting for Safestart to provide a copy of the June 12 Zoom meeting.

“There’ll be a lot of questions answered once that’s released,” Bellis said.

Eyler provided a copy of the audio recording this week to Muddy River News.

Damage control critical for county officials after June 28 town hall meeting

Participants in the June 12 Zoom meeting were:

  • Schwartz.
  • Michele Fisher, chief operating officer and environmental consultant with SafeStart.
  • Eyler.
  • Farha.
  • Kent Snider, president of the Adams County Board.
  • Adams County Sheriff Tony Grootens.
  • Adams County Deputy Sheriff Pat Frazier.
  • Terry Bower, director of maintenance in the Adams County Courthouse.
  • David McCleery, Adams County Board member and member of the Transportation, Building and Technology Committee.
  • Dave Bellis, Adams County Board member and member of the Transportation, Building and Technology Committee.
  • Lance Schuette, chief operations officer and senior engineer at Klingner & Associates.

“When I listened to and was watching live the June 28 town hall meeting, and (Schwartz) starts saying some of the things that he was saying about the building not being safe and it needs to be closed down immediately, it was a complete shock,” Eyler said. “(Schwartz) had never said any of that before to us, and certainly not in that June 12 Zoom meeting with county officials. There was no additional testing done (after June 12). I don’t know what changed.”

Eyler said damage control was critical for county officials after the town hall meeting. Adams County officials issued a press release the day after the June 28 town hall meeting, saying they were “investigating our options.”

“There were people who wanted that building closed down the next day,” Eyler said.

Schwartz less inclined to evacuate courthouse during meeting with county officials

Schwartz said during the town hall meeting he would “highly recommend people avoid being in the building” and considered the building not safe. He agreed all functions that take place in the courthouse must continue.

“There needs to be some search for ways to safely find places and safely move and treat content to other locations to perform these functions until this building could be made safe,” Schwartz said. “Now, you don’t have to do what I’m suggesting. These are my professional opinions. You can do what you want to do.”

During the June 12 meeting, Schwartz seemed to be less inclined to evacuate the courthouse.

“As you approach solutions, try things a step at a time,” he told county officials. “As soon as you’re able, try new things that may tend to get you the most bang for the buck first and correlate with the employees how it’s going.”

County, SafeStart debate ‘unacceptable’ testing results

Dr. Scott McMahon of Whole World Healthcare in Roswell, N.M., participated in the town hall meeting. He said he noticed in a Safestart report that courthouse testing was done in 48 areas, and 41 of them indicated the area was “unacceptable.”

“That’s almost 85 percent of the building,” he said.

However, when talking with Schwartz about samples for Aspergillus Penicillium (which can cause an infection in the lungs or sinuses if breathed in by people with weakened immune systems) during the June 12 meeting, Schuette thought some of the counts were too low to be listed as “unacceptable” on the Safestart report.

“I mean, I get (Schuette’s) point,” Schwartz said. “I’m not saying it’s unacceptable. I mean, maybe it needs (to be) further looked at.”

“For the air sample I’m looking at, the total spore concentration was 80, which is really low for an interior space,” Schuette said.

“Our concern is: Why is it there?” Schwartz replied. “Was there something that occurred historically in that area to cause that? We just feel it needs a closer look at that. I get where you’re going, and I understand and agree with that.”

“We feel like there should be a side note,” Schuette said. “Instead of it saying ‘potentially unacceptable,’ because then that’s all anybody that has an issue will look at that, it should be acceptable with a sidenote. The air sample, just looking at it by itself, was acceptable.”

“If you want to explain that to your group (during a special County Board meeting on June 13) and tell them that we had this discussion and we agree with that, you can do that,” Schwartz said.

SafeStart told county officials to move old boxes, wet ceiling tiles

County maintenance crews used Adams County Jail inmates to remove old boxes, wet ceiling tiles and other contaminated materials from the courthouse. They were hauled away during hours when employees were in the courthouse. Employees on the June 28 Zoom meeting were concerned about that stirring more bad air.

“I used to tell patients when you move stuff that when you’re not in containment, it’s like a child blowing a dandelion,” Dr. Eric Dorninger, a naturopathic physician from Louisville, Colo., said during the June 28 meeting. 

“It’s gone even further than that. The latest data is more that microbial growth moves like smoke. If you’re just frivolously moving something with such obvious three-dimensional microbial growth, you’re not only going to stir and spew right there, but it’s going to go right into the ventilation system and get dispersed.”

However, Safestart officials told county officials to move the items during the June 12 meeting.

“(The basement boiler area is) where there’s a lot of boxes with papers and things like that,” Fisher said. “When (the papers) become wet, it just is a buffet for these kinds of molds to grow.”

“That is in the basement where the old coroner files are, and that wall is underground,” Snider said. “Those old books are there. We can’t get rid of them.”

“Maybe move them into like airtight plastic bins?” Fisher said.

“Some kind of steel container?” Schuette asked.

“These things date way back to the early 1900s,” Snider said. “Somebody just has to tell us what to do with them. We can’t destroy them.”

“Consider storing them off site in a different building in a sealed area,” Fisher said.

Later in the June 12 meeting, Schwartz told county officials that ceiling tiles with random staining “should be replaced.”

Industrial hygenist hired to perform more tests on courthouse

The contentious relationship with SafeStart led the Adams County Board to vote on July 12 to hire John A. Jurgiel and Associates, which has offices in St. Louis and Texas, to perform tests on the courthouse. Jurgiel is an industrial hygienist, which analyzes, identifies and measures workplace hazards or stresses that can cause sickness.

Bellis said Jurgiel will perform the tests, provide an in-person explanation of the results and help the county form a remediation plan. The cost will be no more than $3,500 — significantly lower than the $56,000 paid to SafeStart. Neither SafeStart nor Jurgiel will do the remediation work.

“We’re not at this point ready or able if you wanted to even go into detailed remediation plans,” Schwartz said in the June 12 meeting.

The Adams County Board also voted July 19 to issue a request for proposals to install air scrubbing equipment into the building’s ventilation system. The step to permanently remediate the building’s mold would follow. 

“It’s not like (SafeStart) gave us a recommendation, we don’t like it, and we’re simply looking for someone else to tell us what we want,” Eyler said.

“That’s not the case. We need a remediation plan. Then when we have the remediation plan, we will send those steps out to bid to contractors who perform those tasks, whatever they may be. Then we will decide who to hire to do the remediation on those particular issues. My guess is there’s going to be different issues at different locations and different types of tasks to be performed.”

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