Butte Hall gets good grade

Report on the health of Chico State building questioned

Butte Hall is being monitored for air-quality issues.

Butte Hall is being monitored for air-quality issues.

Photo By tom gascoyne

In the wake of the lung-disease-related deaths of two Chico State employees within a month of each other last spring, the university hired a company to evaluate the air in Butte Hall, the building where both of the employees worked.

Initial concern was about the asbestos fireproofing material sprayed on the steel framework of the seven-story building when it was constructed in 1972. The framework is three to four feet above the ceiling tiles on each floor. Over the years, as the tiles have aged, duct tape has been used to patch holes and cracks in the ceiling, based on requests to Facilities and Management Services by concerned employees working in the building.

The air-quality report by Healthy Buildings was released Jan. 7 and says overall the air circulated by the building’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system is safe. But it also acknowledges that it did not use its usual sensors to analyze the air.

Ordinarily, the company uses measuring sensors called AUDITARIES that are installed in an air system’s ductwork.

The company’s website explains the process: “These become a focal point of Healthy Buildings’ continuing tracking and monitoring process for indoor air quality. The ongoing monitoring involves repeat inspections at prearranged intervals, usually annually or biannually.”

However, in what might be called a Catch-22, the report on Butte Hall notes: “On this occasion the Healthy Buildings AUDITARIES were not installed due to the presence of asbestos containing materials … in the ceiling area.”

Instead, the company conducted “visual inspections of the duct internals … using existing supply air diffusers,” or vents. In other words, they looked in the ducts and examined the filters for various pollutants, but not asbestos.

In October staff members who worked in Butte Hall sent a letter to Gayle Hutchinson, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, which is located in Butte. She forwarded the letter to Marvin Pratt, director of the campus departments of Environmental Health and Safety, and Luis Caraballo, director of Facilities and Management Services.

The letter included questions and concerns about the asbestos and its potential for fouling the air. Some of those concerns were based on information from Lisa Townzen, who was then Hutchinson’s secretary. Townzen had learned that when the building was constructed a second coat of the asbestos fireproofing had been sprayed on the framework after the HVAC system had been installed. She shared the information with other staff members.

“The overspray is what is falling off and a danger, but they [department directors] said it falls off in clumps and doesn’t break apart,” she wrote. “They also said that [B]utte [H]all is the only building on campus where they have to put up asbestos containments to work on the ceiling tiles due to this overspray issue.”

Townzen is no longer Hutchinson’s secretary, having transferred to another department in Plumas Hall.

Another staff member asked for the ceiling tiles to be taken down and tested “to see if the [asbestos] fireproofing is fraying and becoming airborne above us.”

The safety directors explained that “the fireproofing is a cement-like material. The asbestos fibers are bound in the cementitious material and should not be confused with other forms of asbestos materials that would ‘fray’ or become loose or airborne due to the course of age.”

A representative of the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration visited the campus last fall, and a full inspection of Butte Hall is scheduled for sometime this spring. A Cal OSHA spokesperson contacted on Jan. 22 confirmed an inspection is in the works, but could not say exactly when it will take place.

One of the more outspoken staff members is Professor Mark Stemen, whose office is in Butte Hall. In an email he responded to the Healthy Buildings report.

“For many of us on the campus, the report is yet another example of the Orwellian world we now inhabit,” he said. “On one hand the firm claims it ‘found no significant pollutant sources likely to impact the indoor air quality,’ while on the other hand admitting they could not carry out their normal monitoring protocol ‘due to the presence of asbestos containing materials … in the ceiling area.’”