Conroe, January 13, 2017 – A major scandal came to light on Friday, as some county officials attempted to downplay a giant asbestos containing materials (ACM) problem in the older original part of the Montgomery County Courthouse, located at 301 North Main Street in Conroe. The problems recently arose during a remodeling and attempted renovation of the old District Courtroom on the second floor of the building to turn it into a new home for the 410th District Court of District Judge Jennifer Robin.
On December 30, 2016, three Technician 2-level employees of the Montgomery County Building Maintenance Department received instructions from Department Director Paul Case to remove a wall as part of the remodeling project for Judge Robin and her staff. While in the old jury room of what was the 221st District Court for many years, the three workers began to notice a thick dust cloud form around them as they continued their work. The workers had received no warnings whatsoever about any dangers or concerns. After two hours of work tearing the wall down, they reported difficulties breathing to Montgomery County Risk Management and Safety Officer Curtis Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald instructed the employees to stop their work and leave the area of the dust cloud.
After examination of the dust material, Fitzgerald identified the white dust as ACM and instructed the employees to seek medical attention. In his “Immediate Report of Injury Illness or Exposure,” dated January 10, 2017, Fitzgerald explained, “Employee was working with crew conducting a demo of interior walls for court hallway of courthouse. As employees removed interior sheetrock walls, crew exposed outer existing courthouse wall (circa 1935). Employees penetrated exterior walls to expose old window frame and was (sic) exposed to ACM insulation.” All three employees have filed claims under the Texas Workers’ Compensation statute for persistent coughs and exposure to asbestos. After initial physician visits, at least two of the three employees must go to pulmonologists for analysis of white spots and dust material observed in x-rays of their lungs.
Besides the direct exposures of the three county employees to the ACM within the main courthouse walls and windows, there is a seriously alarming aspect of the incident: the three workmen were tearing the wall down and working in the dust cloud directly below the intake duct for the courthouse air conditioning system!
Due to the intervening holiday weekend, Fitzgerald did not notify Director Paul Case of the exposure until Tuesday, January 3, 2017. Neither Fitzgerald nor Case notified any of the judges, judicial staff, law enforcement officers, litigants, witnesses, jurors, or other people working in and using the courthouse of the likely exposure to friable airborne asbestos between January 3 and January 6, which county officials have estimated likely numbered several thousand people over that four-day period. District Attorney Brett Ligon and Sheriff Rand Henderson confirmed that neither of them nor their staffs, to their information, had any knowledge of the asbestos exposure inside the courthouse where many of them work. Montgomery County Director of the Office of Court Administration Nate Jensen told The Golden Hammer that he did not receive any notice of the asbestos problem until Friday, January 6, when an asbestos abatement team attempted an asbestos abatement in the old jury room of the 221st District Court. Jensen confirmed that neither District Judge Tracy Gilbert who works right around the corner from the location of the exposure or Judge Robin had any knowledge of the incident until the same time when he learned about it.
Case hired Environmental Analytical Services to conduct testing and an asbestos abatement on Friday, January 6.
The Golden Hammer, during the course of its investigation, discovered the following additional facts:
- In 2011, during remodeling of the same courtroom for 221st District Judge Lisa Michalk, the Montgomery County Building Maintenance Department discovered that there was substantial asbestos inside the walls of the Courthouse and specifically those walls in the vicinity of that courtroom. The Building Maintenance Department failed to notify court officials at that time as well.
- Neither Case nor anyone in the Building Maintenance Department warned the three Technician 2 employees that there would likely be asbestos in the materials they were demolishing before they began their work on December 30.
- Federal law, Texas Department of Health Services (SDHS) regulations, and City of Conroe ordinances mandate that there must be an asbestos survey performed in accordance with federal and state regulations prior to the demolition of any public building either in whole or in part. The County Building Maintenance Department failed to perform an asbestos survey prior to the demolition work on December 30 and failed to notify the Building Maintenance employees of that malfeasance.
- Pursuant to the National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants and the Texas Asbestos Health Protection Rules, once asbestos is discovered at a construction demolition site, the building owner (Montgomery County) must file a formal notification with the SDHS ten (10) working days before any further construction, demolition, or even asbestos abatement may occur.
- Case, the Building Maintenance Department, the Risk Management Department, and Montgomery County for whom they all work, violated federal, state and local laws by proceeding with an asbestos abatement before permitting SDHS inspectors to examine, test, and inspect the site.
- During remodeling of County Court at Law Number Two (2) in 2014, Judge Claudia Laird and her staff temporarily utilized the old 221st District Courtroom for a few days, noticed that they felt ill almost immediately after beginning work in that area of the old courthouse, and requested relocation to another courtroom in the Montgomery County Courthouse.
The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (signed into law by President Reagan in 1986) clearance standard for safety is 70 s/mm squared (seventy asbestos structures (fibers) per square millimeter.). If the number is higher than 70, there is no clearance for human beings to use the area tested.
The United States EPA does not find any exposure to asbestos to be acceptable and EPA states there is no safe exposure to asbestos, stating
“Available evidence supports the conclusion that there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos. This conclusion is consistent with present theory of cancer etiology and is further supported by the many documented cases where low or short term exposure has been shown to cause asbestos-related disease.”
After one full week of inactivity at the job site in the Montgomery County Courthouse, the old 221st District Courtroom measured 97.00 s/mm squared. After the alleged abatement, the concentration levels were 16.00 s/mm squared. There is no indication that the abatement included any measurements of airborne asbestos in the HVAC ducts or other nearby areas around the old main courthouse.
Joseph Hultman, a 30-year experienced professional inspector licensed by the Texas Real Estate Commission, told The Golden Hammer, “No work should have occurred in the Courthouse without an asbestos survey. These older buildings, especially from the 1935 time period, are well known to have asbestos-containing materials. It is completely unacceptable for the abatement to have occurred without notification of the Texas Department of Health Services. At this point, knowing that there is asbestos in the walls and windows of the main part of the building, it would be prudent for Montgomery County to shut the building down in order to conduct appropriate testing, demolition, and possible partial remediation.”
Precinct Three Commissioner James Noack confirmed that he never received any notification from the Building Maintenance Department regarding the serious and dangerous exposure at the Montgomery County Courthouse. Noack added, “I’m particularly concerned that after County Judge Craig Doyal moved to consolidate county departments under his control that he wouldn’t take the time to advise me of such a serious matter.”