Written by Whitney Downard, The Meridian Star
A year-old report on the air quality of the Lauderdale County Courthouse hasn’t had an impact on the employees who work in the building, nor have any public warnings been issued.
The Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors paid $10,700 in taxpayer money to study the conditions inside the courthouse in early 2018 but have only one physical copy of the report to the county. The architect for the courthouse project, LPK Architects, retains the sole copy of the report at its offices on 22nd Avenue.
For Bob Luke, of LPK Architects, the report contained no real surprises, noting that any person could use their nose to guess the extent of mold in the courthouse. “It’s an old building with a lot of water issues,” Luke said.
A grand jury report this week called for supervisors to conduct an air quality, mold and asbestos inspection on the courthouse and release the report to the public, not realizing that supervisors received that very report in March 2018.
“The Grand Jury wants the citizens to be informed of the conditions of the courthouse and the hazard it poses to employees and visitors,” the grand jury report stated. “The Grand Jury requests that the citizens of Lauderdale County contact the Board of Supervisors regarding the progress or lack of progress in making a decision to move all employees out of the courthouse immediately and into adequate working spaces until a decision is made to demolish or renovate the courthouse.”
An invoice from LPK Architects showed a $9,500 charge for asbestos, lead-based paint and indoor air quality/mold investigation by Pickering Firm, Inc. at the Lauderdale County Courthouse on April 5, 2018 as well as $1,200 for sample collection and roof repair.
Similar reports at New Orleans and Kentucky courthouses have prompted emergency closures, as reported by The Times-Picayune and Lexington Herald-Leader.
According to reports from the two newspapers, the Fayetteville Courthouse, in Kentucky, closed because of “dangerous levels of deteriorating lead-based paint” while the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse closed because of peeling lead-based paint and crumbling asbestos “that warranted prompt removal.”
When The Meridian Star requested “any results/reports from Pickering Firm investigation” to the county, Chris Lafferty, the county administrator, didn’t release any in-house information related to the request, saying the only report was “loaned out to those working on the project.”
After repeated requests, Lafferty told The Star to contact Luke about previewing the report.
The Pickering Firm, based in Flowood, investigated the interior conditions of the courthouse, including asbestos, lead-based paint and mold.
The firm’s report recommends limiting time in the basement, cleaning the ventilation and removing water-stained ceiling tiles due to mold. Jonathan Wells and Josh Todd, both supervisors on the courthouse committee, didn’t report sharing any of this advice, such as limiting time in the basement, with courthouse employees.
“Each supervisors knows we have problems with the courthouse and that’s why we are actively working on a fix,” Todd, the supervisor for District 3, said. “But we don’t need to throw good money at something bad… It’s one of those things we know we have a problem and we’re doing everything we can do to do it as fast as we can.”
“(Luke) told us that everything you would expect to find in the building is there,” Wells, the supervisor for District 1, said.
Report on Asbestos, Lead-Based Paint
Willie J. Nester, an MDEA certified asbestos inspector and lead risk assessor with Pickering, reported nine asbestos-containing materials (ACM) and seven lead-based paints (LBP).
Nester said that the inspection, performed on Feb. 16, 2018, revealed asbestos tile and LBPs on the first, second and third floors of the courthouse. The Environmental Protection Agency defines ACMs as a material that contains more than 1 percent asbestos, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines lead-based paint as containing 0.5 percent lead by weight.
Investigators tested 24 different materials for asbestos, with two samples from each, and found nine contained more than 1 percent asbestos, mostly flooring, mastic or wall/parapet flashing on the lower levels. The upper levels, which housed the county jail until the 1990s, also had ACMs in the window putty and caulking.
Wall plaster, ceiling tiles, some flooring and new window caulking contained no asbestos, according to a lab analysis by EMSL Analytical, Inc. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. EMSL Analytical provided all of the analysis for this report.
Of the 15 suspected paints tested for lead, seven contained more than 0.5 percent lead by weight, including some tan, green, brown, white and gray paints on the first, second and third floors. The report recommends caution during construction, since renovations or demolitions can make asbestos “friable,” or easily crumbled and inhaled.
“It is recommended that the removal work be designed by a certified asbestos project designer and that air monitoring be conducted before, during and after the abatement activity,” the report said, noting the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality would require 10 days notice before the project began.
The report included a cost estimate for asbestos removal totalling $60,875, including $46,375 for removing floor tiling and mastic throughout the building (26,500 square feet), $2,500 for linoleum removal on the third floor (500 square feet), $4,800 for removing wall/ parapet flashing on the old lower roof (960 square feet) and $7,200 for removing the ACMs in the 72 jail windows.
For lead, the report recommended specific HEPA vacuum attachments for remaining lead paint, which is subject to OSHA regulations and must be disposed of properly.
“The contractor must ensure that his workers are protected from lead exposure as defined by the OSHA regulations. This would preclude methods of removal that can make the paint airborne such as sanding, sand blasting, grinding or the use of other power tool that would make the LBP into power-like particles,” the report said.
The worst offender for LBP was the green paint on the metal window shutters in the Circuit Clerk’s vault on the first floor, weighing between 6.5 percent lead to 9.3 percent lead by weight, depending on the sample. The interior gray wall paint on the second floor weighed between 5.8 and 6.6 percent while the green paint under the tan wall paint on the first floor weighed 1.9 percent and 2.2 percent. The other four LBPs came in between 1 percent and 0.5 percent lead by weight.
Mold Levels in the Basement
While mold in a humid, warm climate comes as no surprise, the firm did report “normal to slightly elevated (levels) of airborne mold spores on the 1st through 5th floors and significantly elevated mold (spore levels) in the basement area … based upon the analytical results and the site inspection activities, it is our opinion that some remedial actions are recommend during the renovation.”
The firm collected both airborne spore-trap cassette samples and sterile surface swab wipe samples.
“The dominate spore species collected in (spore trap cassettes) were Aspergillus/Penicillium, basidiospores and Cladosporium, common spores found in indoor and outdoor air in Mississippi,” the report said.
Four of the six swab samples revealed medium to rare levels of mold while the remaining two samples had high concentrations of mold.
No Current Regulations
“While the intent of this site analysis is to identify and quantify microorganisms, the client should understand that there are no current regulations regarding permissible exposure limits for building occupants, or are there any regulations regarding threshold levels for remediation. As such, this report identified the various microbiological contaminants present, provides information regarding the medical significance of the predominant microogranisms collected and comments/ recommendations concerning this facility.”
Outside of the courthouse, the airborne spore sample revealed mostly Cladosporium (at 5,780 spores per meter cubed) and Ascospores (at 400 spores per meter cubed) for a combined 6,590 total spores per meter cubed.
The basement of the courthouse showed levels of mold more than three times higher than outside conditions, with 21,200 Aspergillus/ Penicillium spores per meter cubed and 200 Cladosporium spores per meter cubed for a combined 21,830 total spores per meter cubed.
The fifth floor jail area had approximately half as many mold spores in comparison to the outside air, followed by the fourth floor common area and the third floor courtroom in terms of spore count.
Wipe samples revealed no viable mold on the second floor ceiling supply air grille and third floor plaster.
A ventilation unit grille on the first floor showed high levels of Aspergillus/ Penicillium and low levels of Cladosporium while the basement wall plaster revealed medium levels of Cladosporium and rare levels of curvularia (emphasis in the original).
The fourth floor stained ceiling tile and fifth floor textured ceiling had rare levels of Basidiospores and high levels of Cladosporium, respectively.
The report contained descriptions of each type of mold found within the courthouse, saying “while no permissible levels for each microorganism has been established by governmental regulations, an attempt will be made to characterize each microorganism and give some insight into its medical significance.”
For basidiospores and Cladosporium, the most commonly found types of mold, excess moisture and humidity helped these microorganisms to grow and some people developed “allergenic symptoms.”
Penicillium, a generally cold temperature mold, plays a role in the deterioration of cheese, bread products and processed meat, according to the report. “However, some strains are rare opportunistic pathogens in humans, causing infections of the eyes, ears, lungs, urinary tract and membrane lining of the heart,” the report said.
For culvularia, the mold found on the first floor ventilation grille, the mold commonly grows on building materials and may cause hay fever, asthma or allergic fungal sinusitis, according to the report.
Using the Report to Guide Rehabilitation
For Luke, the report provides guidance during the long process of evaluating and renovating the building, which was built in 1903.
“The grand jury looks at it and raises concerns about the building but we need to know exactly what we’re dealing with,” Luke said, referring to grand jury reports condemning the condition of the courthouse. “It lets the county and us know what we’re dealing with so we can understand the best plan on how to move forward.”
Luke noted that the architects had made strides in moving forward, securing a company to assess the exterior of the courthouse and hosting a pre-bid conference on March 13 for contractors on the Tax Collector’s Office and Agri-Center addition.
As part of their effort to move offices out of the courthouse, the county announced plans to relocate the Tax Collector’s Office to the old Hooper’s building, just northeast of the courthouse, and create a new space for the Mississippi State University Extension Services at the Lauderdale County Agri-Center. Moving Extension Services will free up space in the Lauderdale County Annex Building, where supervisors and the Tax Assessor’s Office are located. The supervisors on Thursday received bids for relocating those offices and are reviewing them.
In addition to the Tax Collector’s Office, the courthouse hosts the Circuit Clerk’s Office (first and second floors), the Chancery Clerk’s Office, Drug Court, the 10th Circuit Court, the Chancery Court, the District Attorney’s Office and some smaller county offices.
Todd noted that while the basement had the most reported mold, the basement mostly held files and storage.
“The only other thing in the basement is our tech side so there’s really no reason for an employee to go down there for hours,” Todd said.
Supervisors have expressed frustration with the courthouse process, with negotiations to purchase the federal courthouse on 9th Street from the United States Postal Service seemingly stalled.
“I don’t want to blame other entities, but how long are we going to take?” Wells said. “Time’s about to run out on considering our options… It’s been 40 years of neglect. I think that’s why we’ve got to hurry up and make a decision.”
Todd echoed Wells’ comments.
“It’s not going as fast as we would like… when we think we’re close to making a decision, it seems like something comes up and that makes us think twice about it,” Todd said.
One roadblock previously identified by supervisors is the 1930’s jail addition on top of the courthouse, which Luke previously identified as a source of water infiltration. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the state entity overseeing the rehabilitation, has encouraged supervisors to keep the addition despite calls for its removal.
“When it comes to spending $20 million, $30 million or $40 million potentially, it’s not something we should be hasty about,” Todd said. “We can just look at the next 10 years. We’ve got to think about the next 40, 50 years and how our kids and grandkids will be paying for this.”