Air-quality questions remain at arson building

An air-quality consultant in September recommended the city conduct additional testing on a Fire Department building for mold, but so far the city hasn’t followed that suggestion.

The consultant also raised questions as to whether employees should work inside until the building was fully cleaned, but the city has kept three employees inside the building who were already there.

The 1930s-era building, on North Graham Street, is undergoing a roughly $450,000 renovation, including a new roof.

In August, as construction work began, the building was in poor condition, with holes punched in the walls, broken tiles and some water leaks. That prompted Crystal Eschert, a former fire investigator, to contact a City Council member about the condition of the building, including concerns about air quality.

She was scheduled to move into the building this fall but was fired in September.

She said the city retaliated against her for being a whistleblower and said someone associated with the fire department created a fake Internet persona in an attempt to discredit her with a complaint. The city has denied this, and said Eschert was terminated for making what it called offensive Facebook posts.

Deputy Chief Rich Granger told the Observer on Tuesday that the building was indeed in poor condition at the time, as renovations had just begun. But he said it was safe.

He said the city performed air-quality tests after it received a complaint from an employee, which was Eschert.

“The moment we received a complaint, we tested the building,” Granger said.

Possible mold problem

On Sept. 5, an environmental consultant, Hart Hickman, emailed the city a report on the air quality inside the 34,000-square-foot building.

Much of the report was positive for the city, showing that the air inside many parts of the building was OK.

However, the report raised one area of concern. The consultant had found there could be a “mold amplification problem” in the first floor and basement. One of the high readings was from a warehouse on the first floor, where the Fire Department had recently moved in three employees.

To determine if there was a problem, the consultant said that further testing was needed. Prior to the samples being taken, the consultant said garage doors had been left open. That raised possibility of outdoor contamination.

“Additional spore trap sampling with the building’s exterior doors closed for an extended period of time would be necessary to confirm that elevated mold spore levels are not present,” the consultant said in its report.

City officials interviewed by the Observer Tuesday said they didn’t know if additional testing was performed.

The Observer asked Friday whether the city had performed the additional tests or was planning to. Rob Brisley, a spokesman for the department, said additional testing would be performed to give the department “baseline” air-quality information before it moves additional employees into the building.

An email obtained by the Observer from a public records request suggests that the consultant also had concerns about people working in the building.

On Sept. 8, a city official said in an email that the consultant would “advise that no one move into the facility until after the renovation and the cleaning was complete and the HVAC filters were changed.”

Granger, who was forwarded the email that day, said he interpreted the email to mean no one else should move into the building, but that it was fine for the three employees already there to stay.

He said they were working in the first floor, in an area that had been cleaned and renovated. One of the high levels of the mold was found in the warehouse portion of the first floor, which is adjacent to the offices.

“We didn’t move anyone in on the second floor until everything was complete on the list,” Granger said. “What you don’t know is that the first floor was done.”

It’s unclear whether the consultant would have thought it was OK to have people remain in the building even though others were not supposed to move in.

Matt Ingalls, one of the consultants, said he didn’t remember the details of the report when contacted by the Observer this week. He referred calls about the report to the city.

Brisley said there haven’t been any complaints from the three employees who have been working in the building since August.

Appeal denied

Eschert’s last appeal to keep her job was denied by the city manager’s office Nov. 18.

In late summer, someone named “Linda Havery” emailed the city and complained about Eschert Facebook posts, saying they were being criticized on an Internet message board.

Eschert’s attorney, Meg Maloney, contends Linda Havery doesn’t exist and was created by someone associated with the Fire Department to discredit Eschert.

One of Eschert’s Facebook posts questioned the White House’s response to the shooting of Michael Brown; the other questioned whether there would be a similar response from the Obama administration and civil rights leaders if a white person had been killed.

“So tired of hearing it’s a racial issue,” Eschert’s post said. “If you are a thug and worthless to society, it’s not race – You’re just a waste no matter what religion, race or sex you are!”

The Fire Department’s social media policy prohibits employees from “simultaneously” identifying someone as a CFD employee while sending or posting material that could be perceived as offensive.

Maloney said Eschert did not violate that policy. She said her posts were not offensive, and that Eschert had not even identified herself anywhere on her account as a city employee.

She said she was fired because she complained to a council member.

Granger has denied that, and said the Fire Department will follow up on any complaint, whether it’s anonymous or made face-to-face.

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