The old Armory building on Last Chance Gulch abruptly closed after initial contaminant sampling found lead dust at levels up to 40 times federal standards that warrant additional investigation.
Its immediate closure Monday displaces some 98 employees in the Department of Environmental Quality until further testing and abatement can take place.
The testing was the first step in implementing a plan that DEQ employees and department officials have developed during the past year in response to reports of employee health problems. They are awaiting results from other tests to determine whether mold, volatile organic compounds or any other airborne contaminants may have contributed to employee symptoms.
The complaints go back a decade, with reports from employees of various agencies housed in the building.
Current employees have been complaining about a variety of symptoms, including headaches, severe fatigue, chronic sinus infections and itchy skin, since the department moved into the building at the corner of Last Chance Gulch and Lyndale Avenue in 2002.
Part of the concern is related to the Armory’s past use by the Montana National Guard. Constructed in 1942 around the old city landfill, it housed an indoor maintenance shop and shooting range until 1994.
Last week, samples of lead dust were collected from areas above ceiling tiles throughout the building. Of 22 samples taken, 13 yielded lead dust concentrations above the acceptable workplace limit of 40 micrograms per square foot.
Samples from the second floor, where the shooting range once operated, were the highest — each above 100 micrograms per square foot, with one measuring 1,600 micrograms, or 40 times the limit.
Air and workplace surface samples have since been taken, but those results aren’t expected until later this week, so employees don’t yet know whether they have been exposed to lead in significant quantities.
Some may find it ironic that the DEQ’s remediation division, which is tasked with cleaning up contaminated areas, found its own building contaminated.
“The irony is not lost on us, but the issue is also the reason we are asking those detailed questions, because we are DEQ and the remediation division,” DEQ Director Tracy Stone-Manning said.
If the lead dust is just above the ceiling tiles, the problem may be more manageable to deal with, said Sheryl Olsen, public information officer for the Montana Department of Administration, which rents the Armory Building to DEQ. “That’s what we’re waiting for, to see the extent of the problem.”
Regardless of what those tests say, Stone-Manning said she wants her employees working in a safer atmosphere.
“People are not going back into that building until the plenums are cleaned, remediated and tested again,” said DEQ Public Affairs Coordinator Lisa Peterson, referring to the space above the ceilings that showed high lead contamination levels.
Meanwhile, the department is offering free blood tests to all employees who currently or have worked there, hoping to detect any exposure to lead.
Olsen said the Department of Administration is scrambling to locate and notify past employees who have worked inside the Armory so they can receive blood tests as well.
She wasn’t sure on Monday how many total employees may be at risk for exposure. “We’re trying to get our arms around that universe right now,” she said.
Past employees living outside Helena as well as children of employees who were nursing or pregnant are also encouraged to seek the free testing, Olsen added.
Officials said DEQ employees have been put on paid administrative leave through Wednesday.
“We’re trying to put everything in place to prevent as much disruption as possible,” Peterson said.
Staff under critical deadlines will work remotely until temporary facilities are located, which officials said will happen by Thursday.
Stone-Manning said she was looking for open office space on Monday afternoon.
At a department meeting early Monday morning, employees were given copies of the lab results as well as a list of frequently asked questions pertaining to the situation.
For one question, “What does this mean for my health?” the following was provided:
“Many of you are aware of the difficulty of predicting illness based on environmental factors. With lead contamination, risk is based on exposure and duration — how much you’ve been exposed to and for how long. Results from the air test and your blood test will help you to better understand your potential risk. We will share additional sampling results from the building when we receive them.”
Last week was the first time a buildingwide test for lead particles was conducted, officials said.
“We have tested for lots of other things. We just hadn’t done a comprehensive test of lead. We maybe missed the obvious,” Olsen said.
Peterson noted that the indoor shooting range was tested for lead and abated in 1994, but similar testing was not conducted in other areas. She called lead testing one of the “data gaps” identified during the building contaminant testing plan developed over the past year.
“We’ve had some complaints from employees about that building even prior to DEQ being in that building. All the investigations that were done in the building from 1994 to 2009 were as a result of employee health complaints or site-specific complaints,” Peterson said.
David Bowers, an employee in the DEQ’s reclamation division, has been involved in the group that put together a plan over the past year to comprehensively test all aspects of the building. He described past testing procedures as taking “a shotgun approach” of evaluating small areas in response to specific concerns, which didn’t offer a thorough look at the building as a whole.
He said past testing shows evidence of due diligence, but the methods and results don’t provide enough information to fully assess the building.
“From our perspective, there wasn’t enough information to say yes or no and be satisfied,” Bowers said.
In 2012, department officials agreed to conduct a $90,000 study to assess the contaminant questions, which began last week.
Stone-Manning said employees’ questions and concerns from the last decade and finally the last spring were integral for the department’s decision to “pull the trigger” to do a comprehensive analysis.
“We work with the people who knew the right questions to ask,” she said.
“Turns out, we don’t like the first answer,” she added.
Hayden Janssen, however, thinks state officials should have addressed employee complaints long ago.
Janssen said he’s experienced some throat and sinus issues since joining the DEQ as a reclamation specialist a few years ago. As with some other employees, Janssen said his symptoms tend to subside when he is not in the office.
“We’re talking about physical scientists; they’re the people who actually know this. I think that merits an investigation long before the one that began on the 16th of this month.”
“I believe that this current administration are taking this seriously and understanding the gravity of this issue,” he added. “Previously, unfortunately I do not believe that was the case.”
Stone-Manning said questions about how the problem has been dealt with in the past deserve to be asked.
“The state of Montana needs to learn from this. My immediate concern is the immediate well-being of the people I work with,” she said.
“The decision we made today to temporarily close the building is truly a cautious decision,” she added, noting that all additional testing scheduled under the plan will still take place.
“I think people in the last year have certainly felt like we’re taking this very seriously,” Peterson said. “In the past year, we’ve really taken major steps forward.”
Janssen said he’s glad employees were involved in drafting a sampling plan, but hopes “the parties that did not act when given the information in the past are held accountable as to why.”
“You’re talking about a department that’s charged with protecting health and human environment,” Janssen said. “We have to be accountable to our own employees as well.”