The county building at 423 Griffing Avenue, vacated by Cornell Cooperative Extension in June 2018 due to staff complaints of headaches, dizziness and nausea. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Suffolk County is moving forward with $450,000 in improvements to replace all rooftop HVAC units and make other repairs at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Building on Griffing Avenue, which has been largely vacant for more than a year after more than a year of staff complaints about air quality and illnesses.

The county legislature’s public works, transportation and energy committee this afternoon unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the expenditure of funds for the work at the recommendation of the county public works department. The county will issue serial bonds to cover the cost.

Suffolk DPW has already spent more than a quarter-million dollars on environmental assessments and testing, cleaning of equipment and ductwork, replacement of exterior natural gas pipes and upgrading the existing rooftop HVAC units at the 20-year old building, in an effort to figure out and fix whatever was causing CCE employees to become ill.

Cornell Cooperative Extension documented dozens of staff complaints going back to March 2017, the start of a series of gas leaks at the building that forced evacuations and investigations by town and county fire marshals, according to documents obtained by RiverheadLOCAL through Freedom of Information Law requests. CCE staff repeatedly reported gas odors in the building — complaints numbered more than 30 in the year between March 2017 and March 2018. They also repeatedly reported other strange smells, including the odor of something — perhaps rubber — burning.

Employees complained of headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, chest pains, lightheadedness, mouth and throat irritations, burning, watery eyes, runny noses, metallic tastes and more, according to the documents.

The complaints came from virtually all parts of the building, from offices and common areas on all three floors.

About 100 people worked at the building, home to the main offices of CCE, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Services Agency, the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District and County Legislator Al Krupski’s district office. All of CCE’s programming took place there, bringing about 10,000 people per year into the building, Krupski said. Other groups, like the Peconic Estuary Program, also used the conference room for meetings.

CCE cleared out of the building as of June 1, 2018, relocating to borrowed space in other county buildings around the county. Air quality testing and mold sampling up nothing out of the ordinary, county officials maintained. The county had the air ducts throughout the building cleaned, relocated the natural gas line that feeds the rooftop HVAC units and had other system upgrades completed.

Environmental consultant Enviroscience last July recommended measures to control humidity and mold growth in the building, including regular thorough cleaning of air vent diffusers in two locations where microbial growth was observed. The consultant also recommended “continued maintenance and mechanical inspections of rooftop HVAC units from a reputable HVAC firm.”

The county commissioner of public works gave the all-clear to reoccupy the building last August, after the environmental consultant said it observed “no other detrimental environmental condition that would preclude re-occupancy of the facility.”

But Cooperative Extension employees began feeling sick again after moving back into the building.

By mid-October, CCE was moving back out. CCE employees were again relocated to other county buildings in various places.

Another environmental consultant was then retained to perform testing and make recommendations for remedial action. Apex Companies, in its report dated May 31, 2019
found at least one area of the building exceeded CO2 limits. The rooftop HVAC units, which Apex said are beyond their 15-year expected useful life, were no longer adequately circulating air inside the building, Apex said, concluding “it is apparent that the existing HVAC systems … may require upgrades to meet air circulation objectives.”

Apex discovered that the exhaust from two of the rooftop units was blowing “in the direction of” the intakes of two other units.

“While it may not be possible to completely isolate exhaust and intake locations with the number of individual HVAC units and the relatively small footprint of the roof, corrective measures should be evaluated as part of the overall review of the HVAC system,” Apex said in its report.

Both Apex and the previous consultant, Enviroscience, recommended installation of a building-wide CO2 monitoring system.

The building remains mostly empty, except for Krupski’s offices on the second floor and the USDA Farm Services Agency. Some CCE staff are in the buildings on Mondays, Krupski said.

Information about who will undertake the improvements and when they will be completed was not immediately available.

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