Coincidence or consequence?

Deaths of Chico State employees generate concerns—and denials

Butte Hall

Butte Hall

Photo By tom gascoyne

On May 16 Chico State sociology professor Andrew Dick succumbed to the lung cancer that had been diagnosed a year earlier. Exactly four months later Tami Harder Kilpatric, who worked in the Chico State Political Science Department office, died of lung-related cancer. Both of their offices were located in the northwest corner of Butte Hall; Dick’s on the sixth floor, Kilpatric’s on the seventh. Kilpatric was 51. Dick was 47. Each was reportedly in good health, and neither smoked.

As has been reported in this paper (“Worker deaths raise concerns,” Sept. 27), many on campus, particularly those in Butte Hall, took notice of the deaths and began asking questions. There have long been concerns about buildings on campus that contain asbestos, which has been linked to lung cancer. In Butte Hall the asbestos was sprayed onto the building’s metal framing to provide fireproofing to keep the metal support beams from failing structurally in case of a fire—the image of which was burned into America’s consciousness with the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers on 9/11.

In fact, a vast majority of the buildings on campus are known to have asbestos, including Butte, Plumas and Kendall halls, the Meriam Library, the Shurmer and Acker gyms, the Physical Science Building and Laxson Auditorium. Two buildings—Colusa Hall and part of the Bell Memorial Union—have gone through complete asbestos abatement, an expensive and disruptive activity.

Butte Hall is seven stories tall, the second tallest building on campus. It cost $3 million to build and was completed in 1972. The federal government banned use of asbestos spray for fireproofing the following year.

In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency determined that no level of asbestos was safe and introduced a program that would have banned it entirely by 1996. The ban was challenged by the asbestos industry and overturned on a technicality by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. President George H.W. Bush ordered the EPA to let the ban die.

Had he not done so, says Chico State geography professor and environmental activist Mark Stemen, the university would have had to abate all the asbestos from its buildings. In fact, there were plans to abate Butte Hall of asbestos by 1995.

“But right after the federal lawsuit was dropped, so were our plans,” said Stemen, whose office is on Butte Hall’s fifth floor.

An informational forum at which employees could express their concerns was held Oct. 9. Gayle Hutchinson, dean of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, which is located in Butte Hall, sent an email notice of the meeting to members of her department.

“Dear BSS Community,” the message begins, “I just received this Memorandum from Marvin Pratt, Director of Environmental Health and Safety, and Luis Caraballo, Director of Facilities Management and Services. Their memo expresses sincere concern for the health and safety of all users of Butte Hall and describes the steps under way to address concerns regarding asbestos in the building.”

Pratt and Caraballo were joined at the meeting by Rick Beall, president of Rocklin-based Entek Consulting Group Inc. Included in an information packet that was handed out were the results of a 2010 study of Butte Hall conducted by Entek looking for airborne asbestos fibers prior to the replacement of the ceiling lights and ballasts.

The report, done of course before the work began, concluded, “The air sampling results of this study indicate the levels of asbestos inside of the seven spaces tested were below the detection limit of the laboratory using the U.S. EPA AHERA method.”

At least five people who worked on the top floors of Chico State’s Butte Hall have died of cancer-related illnesses in the past seven years. To show his concern, Prof. Mark Stemen placed the “DANGER ASBESTOS” sign in front of the building. It was quickly removed by school officials.

tom gascoyne

Asbestos, it is said, is safe until disturbed. Stemen said that Chico State President Paul Zingg told those at the meeting that they were dealing with “a sad building, not a sick building.”

Not all who attended were happy with what they were told, and one former CSUC employee expressed her concerns about missing the meeting in an email to Dean Hutchinson. Alison Quigley said she had worked in the same office with Kilpatric. Quigley, who now works at Cal State Fullerton, said on occasion their office would be showered with a white dust.

“In our time, each of us called facilities and each of us had someone out to look at it,” Quigley wrote. “They’re response to me the first time was, ‘There must be dust in the vents.’ From what I have heard, when Tami called facilities, they basically told her the same thing.”

Quigley said that she’s been having health issues, including an incessant cough and a numb throat in the past year. She said blood tests taken few weeks ago were negative but added, “I will be going through more acute tests in these areas in hopes that there is no cancer or any other type of illness that is borne of what really is a ‘sick building,’ Butte Hall.”

On Oct. 17 Pratt and Caraballo released a notice that said their department would conduct ceiling-tile evaluation, air-vent cleaning, air-filter changes and post a map of the buildings on campus that have asbestos.

Joe Wills is the university’s information director. He said he was at the meeting and suggested Zingg’s comment may have been misinterpreted by some.

“I heard what he said, and I felt he really tried to empathize with friends and colleagues of someone who had died,” Wills said of Zingg. “He’s very concerned. Every indication we have is that this is a safe building. That would go against everything we believe in, every fiber in my body, to let people work in a dangerous building.”

Other members of the faculty who attended the meeting fired off emails the next day asking, among other things, for a list of repairs the building has gone though since it was built, a copy of the contract the school has with Entek, the possibility of hiring an independent investigator, and conducting a health survey of the Butte Hall staff.

Dust and debris from 15 locations inside Butte Hall—“accumulated dust from the top of bookshelf(s)”—were sampled by Hayward-based Forensic Analytical Laboratories, and according to the cover page of its report, “No asbestos was detected in any of the submitted samples.” In both Kilpatric’s and Dick’s offices investigators found major traces of cotton and cellulose fibers, as well as paint chips in Kilpatric’s office.

The testing was scheduled to continue through Nov. 9.

On Oct. 22 an investigator from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health paid a visit to the campus to open an investigation of Butte Hall based on calls of complaints from unnamed sources. In an email to faculty and staff, Dean Hutchinson wrote: “In the next few weeks [the Department of Environmental Health and Safety] expects a document request from OSHA. Once EHS provides the documents to OSHA, it is expected that the Cal-OSHA investigator will revisit campus to verify certain aspects of the EHS documents, programs, and/or interview a number of employees.”

Those interviews will be confidential, she wrote.

Robin McCrea, Tami Harder Kilpatric and Karen vonBargen celebrate Kilpatric’s 50th birthday at Caffé Malvina last year.

Photo By robin mCCREA

While no link between asbestos and the recent deaths has been identified, many who work in Butte Hall are understandably concerned. At least three other Chico State employees who worked in Butte Hall have also died in recent years. Elizabeth McMillin of Magalia passed away in 2005 at the age of 68. She had worked 21 years in the Political Science Department, and reportedly died of a lung-related illness. Miriam Monges, who worked in the Sociology Department out of the same office later used by Andy Dick, died from lung cancer in 2006 at the age of 56. Last August Homer Metcalf, who also taught sociology and had an office in Butte Hall, died of respiratory failure at the age of 76.

The question remains: Are the deaths simply what might be expected of a given population or are they somehow linked by environmental conditions?

Robin McCrea works in Plumas Hall for the Department of Agriculture as an administration analyst/specialist. She hired Kilpatric 14 years ago, she said, and worked with her for a few years before Kilpatric took a job in the Political Science Department office on the seventh floor of Butte Hall.

“I went to lunch with Tami and another friend almost every Tuesday or Wednesday for the last several years,” McCrea said during a recent interview in her office. “Tami was an amazing person and an amazing friend. She brought a lot of us together who tend to sit in our offices all day and work and not get out for lunch.”

She described Kilpatric as a selfless person right up to the end. Her husband, Randy, she said, was not yet ready to talk publicly about his wife’s passing.

“She was in the hospital in March literally in her death bed,” McCrea recalled, fighting off tears. “She knew that I’d had a surgery and was so worried about me and calling me and making sure I was fine and could she or Randy do anything?”

McCrea said that despite her illness, Kilpatric continued to work out of her home.

“I have an email from her that she sent in June, three months from dying. She was closing out the Political Science budget, even though she had a feeling that her illness was a result of that building. She was so loyal and such a dedicated and hard worker. She’d asked for a work computer to be installed at home, and she closed out the budget in June at the end of the fiscal year. She was an amazing person, a very good friend, happy, funny, loyal, dedicated to both her friends and to whatever job she had at the time.”

McCrea believes there is a link between Butte Hall’s environment and her friend’s death. She shared a link to a report from the New York State Department of Health that concludes in its synopsis: “The inhalation of mineral (e.g., asbestos) fibers has been described by many investigators; we believe, however, that this is the first report of inhaled non-mineral (e.g., plant and plastic) fibers. These bio-resistant and bio-persistent cellulosic and plastic fibers are candidate agents contributing to the risk of lung cancer.”

As mentioned above, the particle identification analysis results report includes finding major traces of cotton and cellulose fibers in Kilpatric’s and Dick’s offices.

“To me something is not right,” McCrea said. “Tami suffered sinus infections for years after she started working there. She had a thyroid surgery two years before the cancer was diagnosed, and her back had been really hurting two months before all this happened. Walking to lunch she would say, ‘Robin, I’m so frustrated. I have another dusting of powder all over my desk. I call and all they tell me is we’ll clean it up, there is nothing to worry about.’

“I’m very concerned how campus is reacting to this. I sat in a meeting and took three pages of notes that day. I know people are afraid to speak up.”

Michael Perelman


McCrea, who’s been on campus 18 years, said she realizes the university has limited options in these tough financial times, but is nonetheless troubled by the situation.

“I guess it’s just sad that in this day and age people are so afraid of the bottom line of lawsuits,” she said. “We’ve become so fearful of that type of thing that we put the health and safety and lives of people that come to work every day at risk. Yes, it would be inconvenient to move all those people. Yes, it would be expensive, and yes, it would be a big deal to implode that building or do total abatement or whatever they need to do to make it safe, but at what price are you going to deny that it get done?”

She also said colleagues are asking why she is being so public in voicing her concerns.

“I’m pretty much at the point where I figure, well, I may get red-circled—and I know that happens on campus—but I don’t see any raise coming in the next seven years before I retire. I love the College of Agriculture, and I don’t plan to apply for another job, so if the word’s put out…

“I’ve had three people Facebook me who said, ‘You don’t know me, but thank you for speaking up.’ Even Tami’s husband has asked me why, and I say because there is a point in life where you have to put principle and doing what is right above protecting your own security. I could go deliver flowers or something if I lose my job. Tami was a dear friend, and how can people not speak up? How can they not?”

During a recent walk through Butte Hall secretaries and workers in other departments voiced various levels of concern about their work conditions. Some pointed to areas on the ceiling where silver duct tape covers holes in panels that sit just a few feet below the sprayed asbestos. The secretaries did not wish to go on record with their comments, saying they feared retaliation.

When told this, President Zingg said he was surprised to hear such concerns and said the university is doing what it can to address the situation.

Paul Melcon is a professor in the Geography and Planning Department and has an office on the fifth floor of Butte Hall close to Stemen’s. He said he’s not sure what to think of the situation.

“My wife worries about it more than I do,” he said with a bit of a shrug.

Down a floor in Butte Hall economics professor Michael Perelman has an office he’s occupied since the building was constructed. He’s published 19 books, including, The Confiscation of American Prosperity, Railroading Economics, Manufacturing Discontent, The Perverse Economy and The Invention of Capitalism.

He, too, has concerns about working conditions, but he realizes there are limitations at play.

“There is no simple answer given what you have to work with,” he said. “I get angry about the administration, but I’m also sensitive to what they are doing. I don’t see them as being the big villains. I see the big villains as the people who are cutting and cutting and cutting and not giving the resources to education to take care of the things that they should take care of.”

Duct tape has been used over the years to patch holes and gaps in ceiling panels of a number of Butte Hall’s offices.


He said he questions the administration’s approach to the problem.

“When they gave a presentation to concerned people at Butte Hall, one thing they said was, ‘Well, we know that 40 percent of people die of cancer.’ The 40 percent figure is irrelevant because you are talking about a different population and you’re talking about a smaller number of years here in the university.

“I asked, ‘If you’re going to put out statistics like this, how are we to take seriously what you’re saying?’ I’m an economist, and I know how to argue both sides of the story.”

He said he asked the consultant if he was there as an advocate for the university or as a representative of the world of science.

“I was told not to question their integrity afterward by a friend, but I don’t know. I don’t know what the university tests are, and I don’t know if Cal-OSHA’s will be different.”

He said the university is in a Catch-22.

“If you shut down the university, there will be outrage from people who can’t get an education,” he said. “If you don’t shut down the university, there will be litigation, and even if [the university wins], it would probably cost millions of dollars because there will have to be all sorts of scientific research and testing.”

Wills finds himself in a tough position in light of the emotions surrounding the circumstances.

“We don’t want people in that building if it is unsafe,” he said when contacted last week. “We can always find another place to put them.”

He said this summer folks will be moved out of Butte Hall while one of the three elevators is replaced.

“We’ve had deferred maintenance across campus,” Wills said. “Cuts have affected us.”

He pointed out that many are unaware of the details surrounding Kilpatric’s and Dick’s deaths.

Mark Stemen


“Some people know more and some less about the medical histories of these folks,” he said. “As an institution, we don’t want to talk about what they died of; we’re not saying very much about that. Some things that are said may or may not be accurate. I’ve not looked into it; maybe Cal-OSHA will.”

Mark Stemen is not one to shy away from a campus controversy. He led protests against the university parking structure that just opened on Second Street. Soon after news of Kilpatric’s death, he set up a sign outside Butte Hall warning of asbestos.

In an interview from his fifth-floor office in Butte Hall—another sign referring to asbestos sits outside his door—Stemen expressed his reaction to the deaths.

“Andy was the healthy young guy who was known as ‘Dr. Cute,’ Stemen recalled. “And then he just shrivels up and dies. First you hear ‘Andy’s sick; Andy’s dead.’ Then ‘Tami’s sick; Tami’s dead.’ And you realize anybody’s vulnerable.”

Stemen said he questions the reassurances from the administration about the building’s safety.

“These buildings aren’t safe, and they haven’t been safe since the day we opened them,” he said. “In 1972 we build the building; in 1973 they outlaw the stuff that’s literally just a couple of feet over our heads. Now they keep telling us that it is safe as long as we don’t touch it. That’s like putting a loaded gun on the table between us and saying, ‘Hey it’s safe, just don’t touch it.’ Well no, eventually something is going to bump that gun and it’s going to go off, right?”

He mentioned the building’s faulty elevator that is scheduled for repairs this summer and held it up as an example of how things work on campus.

“After there had been three accidents and one injury, they finally decided to replace the elevator,” he said. “On the third fall last spring someone was hurt, and so they finally agreed to fix it. The thing happens three times, but they don’t do anything until someone gets hurt? Sounds like they know this building is unsafe, but they don’t do anything until someone dies?

“I believe the first question the university asks is, ‘What is in the best interest of the students and the faculty?” Stemen said. “But you can’t tell me that the second or third question isn’t, ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’ I don’t want to be disingenuous and say these people don’t care about us, but it’s been this whole funding thing. They keep talking about funding while we rearrange the planter boxes on the deck of the Titanic.”

President Zingg in his email response to the CN&R said that there are no indications that Butte Hall is unsafe or in any way contributed to the deaths of Kilpatric and Dick.

“It is most unfortunate that someone is claiming otherwise and sowing fear among those who work and study there,” he said.

He said the university takes concerns about unsafe or unhealthful working conditions very seriously.

“To suggest callousness or conspiracy otherwise is irresponsible and seems a deliberate rejection of evidence to the contrary,” he said.

And he reflected Wills’ point that the administration is limited in what it can say.

“Confidentiality and respect for their families prevents us from discussing the cause of death for any recent employees in Butte Hall,” he said. “To suggest that alleged unhealthful conditions in Butte Hall contributed to their deaths, though, is not true.”

He said the university fully understands how emotions can drive a story.

“This is especially the case when folks are sad for the loss of former colleagues and seek an explanation, which I completely understand. But the explanation does not lie in the air quality in Butte Hall.”