Confusion over health risks abounds in Nolte

Several faculty members have left the building due to health concerns.

Some University employees were forced to relocate due to health concerns arising from the renovation process at the Nolte Center on East Bank.

Some University employees were forced to relocate due to health concerns arising from the renovation process at the Nolte Center on East Bank.

Matt Herbert

Anne Lazaraton hasnâÄôt been able to hold office hours in her office in the Nolte Center all semester.

Lazaraton, an associate professor in the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Department of Writing Studies, meets with students at a local coffee shop and in the Nolte dining center.

The dust and debris floating in NolteâÄôs halls âÄî a byproduct of ongoing construction in the building âÄî created problems with her asthma.

The construction, which started in earnest over the summer, provoked complaints about health conditions from faculty and staff working in Nolte, and forced some to relocate their offices to nearby buildings on campus.

 âÄúThe construction really puts a hamper on my job,âÄù Lazaraton said. âÄúI canâÄôt be in there for more than a few minutes. The only time I go up to the second floor is to check my mail.âÄù

Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Planning Services Gary Oehlert called the construction zone âÄúprimitive.âÄù

In a Sept. 13 email to the Department of Writing Studies, Margaret Yzaguirre of CLA Human Resources advised faculty and staff on whom to contact if someone had a medical condition exacerbated by the construction. The email goes on to say that employees may also be covered under the University workersâÄô compensation program.

Fewer than 10 people have contacted Yzaguirre with questions or concerns, she said five to eight employees have moved to temporary spaces in Fraser Hall, and a few more are using âÄúalternative spaceâÄù in Nolte.

Though the worst of the construction on the second and third floors has passed, many faculty and staff have complained about poor communication from the University about the construction and possible health concerns.

âÄúCommunication with us and students has been lacking and thatâÄôs putting it mildly,âÄù Lazaraton said. âÄúI just wish we could have had some sort of announcement early on warning us of health hazards.âÄù

Reactions have âÄònot been goodâÄô

The Department of Writing Studies moved into the Nolte Center in late August after its former home, Wesbrook Hall, was demolished during the summer. At that time, a $2.5 million renovation to NolteâÄôs second and third floors was already underway.

Emails obtained by the Minnesota Daily show that the construction created concerns for the new tenants almost immediately.

In a Sept. 1 email to Oehlert, construction project manager George Mahowald wrote: âÄúFolks are starting to drift back into Nolte, and their reactions at this point have not been good. Quite a few people are experiencing problems with dust, from minor throat irritation through asthma-like symptoms.âÄù

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration received a complaint Sept. 2 regarding the construction and the buildingâÄôs safety. No citations or recommendations were issued, but OSHA spokesman James Honerman said the investigation is ongoing and the case is still open.

Neil Carlson from the UniversityâÄôs Department of Environmental Health and Safety tested air qualities Aug. 29. The results were âÄúnormal for a construction site,âÄù according to the report. In his report, Carlson recommended that reducing the level of dust in the space would reduce employee concerns.

In internal emails, Oehlert and Writing Studies Chair Laura Gurak recommended that large HEPA air filters be set up in hallways to combat the problem. Those were put in the building Sept. 1.

âÄúEveryone seems to think those have made a big difference,âÄù Oehlert wrote in an email the next day.

However, some faculty members, like Nan Nelson from the Department of Writing Studies, were worried about working in a construction zone and about the lack of communication. Nelson has moved her office to Fraser Hall due to dust irritating her throat and her uncertainty of the air quality.

âÄúThe construction zone was pretty horrible,âÄù Nelson said in an interview with the Daily. âÄúAm I supposed to have blind faith in CLA and construction workers telling me itâÄôs fine to be in there, but they refuse to let any of us see the documentation or formal reports?âÄù

âÄòThatâÄôs asbestosâÄô

âÄúI passed by two construction workers. One pointed to a bucket and said to the other, âÄòThatâÄôs asbestos.âÄô Then they went silent as I passed by.âÄù

ThatâÄôs from an email to Gurak dated Sept. 10 from an unnamed faculty member.

Sean Gabor, Hazardous Materials program manager for Facilities Management, confirmed that there was asbestos in the building.

The UniversityâÄôs abatement crew cleaned and removed asbestos in construction areas of Nolte. Asbestos is present in many old buildings on campus, especially in old pipes, carpeting and in ceiling and floor tiles, Gabor said.

âÄúThere is still asbestos in parts of the Nolte Center and in buildings around campus,âÄù Gabor said. âÄúThereâÄôs asbestos in floor tiles and ceiling pucks, [but] they are safe unless disturbed or drilled into.âÄù

Gabor said that all samples were analyzed and indicated airborne asbestos fibers were less than 0.01 fibers per cubic centimeter, below the Minnesota Department of HealthâÄôs limit for asbestos-related work.

Dr. David Perlman, an assistant professor of medicine at the University, said asbestos exposure can cause scarring of the lungs and increase the risks for cancers like malignant mesothelioma.

Perlman said if the samples tested under MDHâÄôs threshold, then Nolte should be safe for staff.

Barbara Horvarth from Writing Studies, currently in a temporary office in Nolte, said she has no complaints.

âÄúSome days are challenging due to the obstacles with workers and machinery, but the staff and workers have been great at handling everything,âÄù Horvath said.

Barbara Jensen, an administrator in the Department of Writing Studies, said during a Sept. 26 informational meeting that students needed some sort of notice.

âÄúWe trusted it was safe but we needed something official for students,âÄù Jensen said.

At the meeting, Associate Vice President of Capital Planning and Project Management Michael Perkins said the University would try to improve communications in the future.

âÄúWeâÄôll try to do a better job next time,âÄù Perkins said. âÄúWeâÄôll try to improve on what we can, and weâÄôre sorry it was at your expense.âÄù