The county’s handling of air quality issues at the mostly vacant Cornell Cooperative Extension building in Riverhead, where employees were complaining of mystery illnesses for more than a year before being moved out, has the attention of Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy.
The chief engineer at the Suffolk County Department of Public Works dictated changes to an environmental consultant’s report about the building’s air quality, including adding a recommendation that employees could reoccupy the building. After the consultant’s amended final report was submitted to then-public works commissioner Gil Anderson last year, Anderson gave the all-clear for Cornell Cooperative Extension to move back into the building.
But employees began complaining again of the same issues and illnesses. By mid-October, Cornell Cooperative Extension offices were closed again. For a second time, its staff was subsequently moved to alternative worksites.
“I am very surprised that any arms-length outside entity would agree to have their final work product subject to the customer’s review and changes,” Kennedy said in an interview. He said his office will look into the air quality investigations and repairs at the Riverhead building and perhaps launch an audit into the project. “The county receives a significant amount of funding from the state through Cornell,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy says he’s looking at how the county spent more more than $100,000 trying to figure out why the building was making Cornell Cooperative Extension employees sick, before deciding last month to spend nearly half a million dollars to replace the rooftop HVAC units on the building. Relocating the employees and settling them into other worksites — twice — was likely a significant expense, he said.
The building, built about 18 years ago, has been largely vacant since June 1, 2018, following widespread reports of unexplained illnesses by Cornell Cooperative Extension staff beginning in March 2017 — the start of a series of gas leaks at the building that forced evacuations and investigations by town and county fire marshals. 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 documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
DPW chief engineer Michael Monaghan edited a July 11, 2018 report from Enviroscience Consultants addressed to him and engineer Thomas Szumczyk. Monaghan’s edits were incorporated into a final report bearing the same date addressed to Anderson, according to the documents.
The DPW engineer made notes to the “Conclusions & Recommendations” section of the Enviroscience report directing edits that included deleting two of the consultant’s eight bullet-pointed recommendations to DPW, changing the language of another and adding a new bullet point. Each change was incorporated into the final report, which was addressed to the commissioner.
Monaghan’s edits are contained in a document provided by DPW in response to a to RiverheadLOCAL FOIL request bearing the filename “MJM Comments.” DPW confirmed that MJM are Monaghan’s initials and the comments were made by him.
At the end of the “Conclusions & Recommendations” section, Monaghan added a note that read:
“ADD THE FOLLOWING BULLET: ‘EnviroScience observed no other detrimental environmental condition that would preclude re-occupancy of the facility.’
This sentence was added to the final report submitted to the commissioner, who in August gave the all-clear for Cornell Cooperative Extension to re-occupy the building.
In one note, Monaghan highlighted two bullet points and wrote “DELETE THIS BULLET” next to each, which originally read:
• “Enviroscience encourages the regular monitoring of conditions at these ceiling diffusers in the future to note any new microbial growth or other irregularities.”
• “Regular cleaning of the duct system to reduce potential for mold growth and airborne contaminants is recommended.”
Both bullet points were omitted from the final report submitted to the DPW commissioner.
For a third bullet point that read: “Regular maintenance and mechanical inspections of rooftop HVAC units from a reputable HVAC firm” Monaghan added a note that said, “Delete ‘regular’ and replace with ‘continued’.” The change was also incorporated into the final version of the report.
The county defended the changes through a DPW spokesperson.
DPW hired Enviroscience in the spring of 2018 to perform indoor air quality assessments in the building at a cost of $25,000, according to a county purchase order dated May 29, 2018 indicating the work was to be done as an “EMERGENCY!!!” per the commissioner’s direction.
“It remains standard practice for DPW to offer comments and recommendations to draft reports completed by consultants. It is entirely at the discretion of the consultant to include these recommendations in the final report, and the results of the report remain fully intact,” the spokesperson said in an email.
“The two bullet points were recommended to be removed due to planned duct work cleaning already underway. Additionally, a bullet point was recommended to be added to the report to clarify the results and clearly state the conclusion the consultant reached.”
Enviroscience president Glenn Neuschwender said in an interview last month the changes in the report were the result of “a discussion between the county and ourselves.” He said it took the county “a little more than a month” to respond to the draft report. Both the draft and the final report have the same July 11, 2018 date. On Aug. 22, 2018, the DPW commissioner cleared the building for re-occupancy as of Aug. 27, 2018.
“In the period of time from when the draft was issued, the county had contracted with someone and the duct cleaning was underway,” Neuschwender said, explaining his firm’s decision to delete the report’s original recommendations about “regular” cleaning of the duct work in the building.
Neuschwender said a request to add a recommendation regarding occupancy is not unusual, either.
Enviroscience has done a lot of business with the county. Records obtained from the county comptroller’s office show the county has paid the firm more than $800,000 since January 2012.
Legislator Al Krupski said he is not troubled by changes made at the request of the county engineer “as long as it’s transparent why the consultant’s report was altered.” Krupski, who chairs the county legislature’s public works, transportation and energy committee, said he asked DPW about the changes and is still waiting for an answer.
A second firm, Apex Companies, based in Bohemia, was hired by DPW to monitor carbon monoxide in the building. In its report, Apex concluded that the “rooftop HVAC equipment, along with improper system balancing, continues to be considered a probable cause of many of the concerns noted by the occupants.”
The county legislature last month approved the purchase and installation of all eight rooftop HVAC units on building, at an estimated cost of approximately $450,000. According to DPW, the county has already spent about $250,000 on investigating and remediating various conditions at the building.
Extension staff members have been relocated to other county offices. Employees in the U.S. Department of Agriculture office and the district office of County Legislator Al Krupski have remained in the building.
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