For the better part of the last 13 months the troubled 34,000-square-foot Sheriff’s Operations Center’s fate has turned into that of an ailing patient whose illness can’t assuredly be determined, so more testing or exams are filling in for what certainty has not.
An administrative law judge overseeing the workers’ compensation claims by more than two dozen sheriff’s employees affected by the building’s interior air has ordered another round of testing in the building for environmental toxins on Dec. 13. It is the same judge who issued a “preservation order” for the building, requiring that no structural changes be carried out as the workers’ compensation cases proceed.
Sheriff’s employees have been seeking that independent testing for months. “The union is very excited to finally be moving forward with this,” Gabe Fuentes, a sheriff’s detective and union leader who represents the employees, said in a brief interview this evening. He said more detailed information about the scope of the testing would be forthcoming.
“The testing flows from an ongoing dispute where more than 25 officers have claimed severe health consequences related to mold and other unseen contaminants in the facility,” a release issued by the office of Geoffrey Bichler, the attorney who represents the sheriff’s employees, stated today.
It will be the latest in a series of testing rounds conducted there since the building was evacuated in June, and more since November 2017, when employees first began reporting health issues, though the county had been leery of such testing. “There is no ongoing obligation for the County, to the detriment of its citizens and taxpayers, to allow this building to deteriorate due to lack of maintenance so that it will ‘…remain the same…’ indefinitely,” Michael roper, the Orlando-based attorney the county hired for its side in the dispute–and it has become a dispute–wrote County Administrator Craig Coffey, by way of a memo, in August. “If anyone is under the impression that the County has an indefinite obligation to ‘preserve’ the condition of this building, whatever that term may imply, they are simply mistaken or misinformed.”
A small group of employees was moved out of the building initially. As more employees began reporting problems without getting clear answers from the county–the landlord in the equation–the building, including the sheriff’s administrative staff, was evacuated in June. It has stood empty since but for testing, walk-throughs, cleaning and some repairs to the air handlers.
The building was tested for one toxin or another in January, February, March, April (see the fuller report) and June, with radon testing subsequently. The building was visited by the CDC in September, when CDC officials also met one-on-one with employees. All the testing to date has been conducted by personnel the county hired.
The CDC did not conduct any testing, but cautioned local officials about the variability of short-term testing results in a building and a location prone to large fluctuations in environmental conditions. Based on its findings through other analytical means, CDC officials did conclude that there’d been “water intrusion” in the building, and recommended that interior dry-walls be removed to verify what may have accumulated within the structure.
It isn’t yet clear who will conduct the testing ordered by the judge, or what the parameters will be. The building “will be tested for a number of environmental toxins that may account for ongoing health problems of the officers,” the release stated.
Bichler, who could not be reached today, intends to be at the building the day of the testing, set for 6 a.m. Sheriff’s personnel will be on hand to provide escorts where necessary, as certain areas of the building remain restricted. The building is still being maintained by the county. The preservation order was sent to the sheriff, but applies to the county, as the landlord. The county carried out a deep cleaning of the building in August.
The building used to be a hospital. It then stood empty for a decade before the county bought it in 2013 to convert it into an operations center.