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School district deals with mold problem at elementary school

Years of issues with a leaking roof at the Pagosa Springs Elementary School, along with other structural issues, apparently led to the detection of mold in the building and the subsequent remediation of that problem.

At last Thursday’s meeting of the Archuleta School District 50 Joint board, Jeshua Thomas of Solid Management Disaster and Restoration Services, Inc. presented what his company had discovered and the steps taken to remediate the problem.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition.”

Despite the CDC’s concern, the Environmental Protection Agency does not have guidelines for acceptable levels of indoor mold spores. Likewise, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division has no regulatory limits for indoor mold spores.

At Thursday’s meeting, district superintendent Mark DeVoti stated that he first became aware of the mold problem when teachers talked about it during a radio interview regarding the need for new schools.

However, a letter sent by elementary school principal Kate Lister stated that, “He may not have known about it, but Dolly (Martin, the district’s maintenance supervisor) has been working on getting the building tested since this summer. Also, as long ago as when Steve Walston was in charge of maintenance, we have had drilling done in the walls to test for mold.”

Walston left his position in 2007.

During his presentation, Thomas said that he had been contracted by the district to investigate whether or not there was a mold problem at the elementary school.

After placing collectors throughout the building and then sending samples to a lab, Thomas said that two rooms showed high levels of mold (over 25,000 mold spores per cubic millimeter) and several more rooms showed moderate levels. Those levels indicated that remediation was required; the district then contracted Thomas for that task.

Initial readings led Thomas and his crew to tear out drywall and other structural materials to locate mold sources.

In an interview Tuesday with SUN staff, Thomas indicated that, due to a clerical error, the numbers he received from the lab were inflated due to the fact that collectors were run for five minutes, but analysis was done for a one-minute collection.

“The numbers are lower but they still would not have changed my conclusion that remediation was required,” Thomas said.

Thomas told the board that he brought mold spore counts in the buildings at or below mold spore counts outside — a standard he sets for his company. At the time of the initial collection, exterior mold spore counts were a little over 3,500 spores per cubic millimeter, making the worst rooms seven times higher than his company’s standards.

However, Thomas told SUN staff that there are only industry standards and no state or local standards, with some companies considering a 10-to-1 ratio acceptable for the level of mold spores per cubic millimeter.

Thomas indicated additional variables figure into investigating mold spore levels in any given area.

First of all, high levels of a particular mold species (such as the toxic stachybotrys) relative to overall mold spore levels would suggest the need for remediation. Secondly (given the standards used by Thomas’ company), outside mold counts vary from season to season and even day to day. Outdoor mold counts spike in the spring (thriving on vegetation killed by the winter cold) and in the fall. Also, molds are highly active following precipitation.

Reporting the results of the remediation efforts at the school to the board, Thomas said, “What we got back (per cubic millimeter mold spore counts following post-remediation collections) were some of the best results I’ve gotten over the years.

“You get a congratulations from me because my kids go there (the elementary school),” Thomas told the board regarding the district’s response to the mold problem.

Regarding the remediation work, board director Joanne Irons asked Thomas, “So, as a father of eight, how do you feel about it?”

“Oh, I feel great,” Thomas responded, but stated that the building would need to respond to roof leaks that have plagued the school for years.

As reported in the Feb. 4, 2010, edition of The SUN, the roof at the elementary school has had ongoing leak issues almost from the time it was installed in 2007. Those leaks have not only led to interior structural damage (and the subsequent mold problem), but have ruined computers and other school equipment.

In early 2010, the Garland Company (contractors for the current roof) assessed issues with the roof after snow loads shut the school down due to leaks. At that time, the company told DeVoti that materials used for the roof were not suited for Pagosa Country’s altitude or climate. The intense sun during the summer and snow loads during the winter apparently compromised the integrity of those materials early on.

Unfortunately, previous complaints to the company had gone largely unheeded. Although the district contacted the company as soon as problems arose near the end of 2007, and numerous times afterwards, the company was unresponsive to the district’s concerns.

Yesterday, DeVoti said he was in contact with the district’s attorney to see if the company could be held accountable for the mold issue. Following the 2010 roof leaks, the district’s attorneys examined the Garland Company warranty and determined the warranty was specific to the roof and did not cover material below (the district was seeking compensation for damaged computers, as well as expenditures on roof repairs).

Lister’s letter stated that the roof was worked on last week and that the school would be immediately addressing leaks as they became evident, along with pursuing ongoing repairs.

On Tuesday, acknowledging the hard work of Danny Salas, Thomas said that the district has done about as much as it can to address its mold problem, other than answering additional leaks to the roof as they arise.

“Yeah, they have roof issues,” Thomas said on Tuesday, “but as long as they stay on top of it, they can keep the mold levels under control.”

“The school (district) has been great,” Thomas continued. “Once they did know about it, they got a hold of me immediately and dealt with it.”

Regarding potential mold problems in the other buildings, DeVoti said that the district was looking into having those buildings tested in the near future. However, DeVoti added that asbestos in the intermediate school (grandfathered in due to the building’s age) could reveal a whole new set of issues — tearing open walls and ceilings to seek out mold sources could release asbestos particulates that would, for all intents and purposes, make the building uninhabitable.

“I know people don’t want to hear it, but we come back to this again and again: It would mean we need a new school,” DeVoti said.

Following Thomas’s presentation, several audience members (Bill Hudson, Linda Bunny, Jim Huffman, Alan and Marilyn Bunch, Lynn and Bruce Dryburgh — all of whom had been vocal opponents of the district’s bond initiative to fund the construction of new schools) addressed the board, criticizing the district for what they perceived were inadequate maintenance procedures, as well as the district’s unwillingness to spend Secure Rural Schools (SRS) funds on new roofs, monies awarded to the district from Federal Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT) dollars paid to Archuleta County. The district has received SRS funds for the past three years (to the tune of about $1.5 million), agreeing to place those funds into reserves and to be used only in cases of “dire need.”

Previously (during the board’s work session), the district’s auditor stated that there was some confusion between the federal government, the Colorado Department of Education and his firm regarding how that money should be spent.

Audience member Lori Unger asked, “So, if we have continual leaks, we’re going to have continual mold issues?”

“Not as long as they’re taken care of immediately,” Thomas answered.

“I see it as the school district has done a good thing,” Thomas said, adding that Hudson had twisted his assessment of the situation in blog posts.

“I’m so disgusted,” Thomas said, referring to the posts. “They took a positive and tried to make it into a negative. They’re starting fires where they don’t need to be set.”

Indeed, with no available evidence that children have become sick due to mold problems at the school, Thomas said that he felt the district did exactly what it needed to do before the problem got out of control.

“I think it’s something to be proud of,” he said. “I think they’ve done a great job.”

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