County, Workers Remain at Odds Over Safety of Office Building

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Orange County officials have canceled evacuation plans for a controversial Social Services Agency building in Orange after two environmental consultants declared the properties safe to occupy, a move that attorneys for workers in the building say is premature.

“This most recent information seems to reinforce what they’ve been telling us all along,” said Social Services Agency spokeswoman Terry Lynn Fisher. “This is good news.”

Fisher was referring to air quality tests done March 4 that followed ground tests last month, which found the chemical perchloroethylene or “perc” on the building site, located at 840 Eckhoff Street in an industrial section of Orange. The compound is considered a likely carcinogen and has been linked to autoimmune disorders and other conditions similar to those suffered by some social workers at the building.

Officials ordered the air monitoring under pressure from the county Board of Supervisors just as evacuation plans were being considered.

Attorneys representing nearly a dozen workers who say the building is making them sick, say the canceling of evacuation plans is premature.

The attorneys want to further study the methodology of the tests taken this month by the county and conduct their own. And they are ready to go back to court because they claim county officials have delayed their test dates.

Lastly, the attorneys are suspicious because they say county officials refused their request to witness this month’s testing.

“I’m not persuaded that what they’re presenting makes it a safe place to work,” said attorney Amanda Hawes, a lead attorney representing all of the workers who have filed suit.

Nonetheless, county officials say the authoritative statements from two environment consultants who reviewed toxic tests taken this month are enough to warrant the cancellation of the evacuation plans.

“There was no evidence of concentrations of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) sufficient to cause adverse health effects in building occupants and that the building can be occupied for regular use without restrictions,” wrote Ben Kollmeyer, who heads up the environmental health consulting firm Forensic Analytical and oversaw the recent toxic testing at the building.

Kollmeyer wrote his letter to Social Services Agency Director Michael Riley on March 14. Meanwhile, another environmental health consultant, Bruce Kelman of Veritox Inc., also declared the building safe for “regular use without restrictions,” in a March 13 letter to the county’s outside attorney, Arezou Khonsari.

“We are following the data,” Fisher said. “We don’t have a pony in this race. We just want our employees to be safe.”

Officials with the Orange County Employees Association were cautiously optimistic about the test results but said the county does not have a good record on such issues.

“It is not clear how long the toxic chemical has been present at the site. Nor is it apparent what the long term effects of exposure are on individuals who are in various stages of pregnancy or who are currently suffering from a variety of illnesses or are of varying ages and physical conditions,” wrote OCEA Assistant General Manager Lisa Major last Friday.

“We will continue to request that the building be evacuated and closed and that the agency adopt a more open and transparent approach to the testing and disclosure of lab tests and results.”

In the meantime, OCEA leaders are suggesting that Riley and his top managers should themselves relocate their offices to the Eckhoff building in order to calm any worker fears about the property.

“The very least agency leadership can do is to relocate their offices to the 840 building to site alongside staff during this difficult time,” Major wrote.

— NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

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