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Local leaders say mold problem solved at Richland Co. fire station

Published: May. 22, 2015 at 3:34 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 1, 2015 at 3:45 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - One Northeast Columbia fire station is back open to its staff after almost two months of being closed for mold and facility repairs.

Firefighters moved back into Station 27, located at 9651 Farrow Road, about two weeks ago. The station is part of Columbia Fire Department but is maintained by Richland County.

WIS first told you about the fire station's mold issue March 20 when the county claimed the station was partially closed after crews found what looked like mold as they repaired a water heater leak.

"You spend one-third of your life in that station," said Chief Aubrey Jenkins. "That's your home away from home, so we always want to make sure the firefighters have a proper, nice place to dwell in.”

However, information WIS recently obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request showed a much larger series of problems.

The mold was first reported Feb. 14 by firefighters at the station by an email that stated, “There is a moisture and mold problem in the women's bathroom. The sheetrock is deteriorating and the rubber base board has started coming off revealing mold behind it.”

The mold issue was then placed on Richland County's maintenance report and assigned to Moses Gibson to address, according to emails WIS obtained from Richland County.

However, according to the emails, the problem wasn't immediately addressed by the county. A follow-up email was sent Feb. 22 from Columbia Battalion Chief Charles Spears to Chief Michael Edmunds stating, “It has become a major concern with the people at Station 27. They stated that the odor takes your breath away now in the rear bathroom.”

Edmunds, who is the assistant chief of administration with CFD, then sent that on to Chief Alpod Williams, who works in logistics for CFD.

He ultimately sent the email to Richland County's David Bertolini, who asked Gibson on Feb. 23 if he went to the station to look at the mold issue. There is no email in the information WIS obtained that shows Gibson replied.

Two days later, on Feb. 25, Richland County Support Services Director John Hixon wrote an email referencing a phone call with CFD Deputy Fire Chief Harry Tinsley about the concerns the staff have at Station 27.

Hixon said a third-party air quality study was going to be done at the fire station to see if mold was present. In addition, he explained in an email that the bathroom would be replaced with materials designed for the damp environment and mitigate any mildew or mold issues in the future. Hixon also pointed out that the county needed to explore ways to get groundwater away from the building.

Gibson received an invoice March 2 from Forest and Wildlife Innovations totaling $10,400 to address all issues dealing with the groundwater at the station.
 
"You always say nothing can ever get done quickly enough, but to their credit, they moved as quick as they could," Chief Jenkins told WIS.
 
Additionally, on March 10, Bertolini sent an email to Hixon and Gibson showing that air quality samples taken from Station 27 on Feb. 26 by Data Resources, Inc. showed two mold types:  Aspergillus/Penicillium and Chaetomium.

Bertolini said in the email that a crew would be at the station the same day as his email to start repairs to the bathroom and that the work would take no more than three days.

Just a week later, however, a CFD staff member sent another email identifying more possible mold at the station. This time it was in the supply room.
 
A memo was sent March 18 from the CFD Occupational Health and Safety Chief Albert Owusu to CFD Chief Aubrey Jenkins regarding the "air quality and mold" at Station 27.

Owusu wrote that he inspected the station and discovered mold with in the walls and underneath the tiles in the bathroom, storage room and possibly the air ducts.

"This morning I received a call from Captain Joyner that the whole crew fell ill this morning causing some of them to vomit," Owusu wrote in the memo. Owusu recommended the crew be relocated until the problem was fixed and requested another air quality test be completed by a third-party.
 
"Based on reports, there is ample evidence to suggest that the symptoms they have been exhibiting may be linked to the presence of mold in the building," Owusu said. "It is therefore imperative that the building be vacated immediately to prevent further exposure that could lead to potential long-term health issues."
 
That memo went from Jenkins to Columbia officials and on to Hixon, who sent it as a high priority email to Bertolini and Gibson on March 18.
 
A day later, a list of repairs and renovations for Station 27 was emailed out by Bertolini, which included another air quality sample to be done by F&ME.
 
Chief Jenkins told WIS, since then, the mold problem has been eradicated from the station's living quarters, which is why firefighters returned to the station about two weeks ago. However, Jenkins says there's still some small projects to do.
 
"Right now, what needs to be done is on the bay floor there's still some insulation that needs to be replaced," Jenkins said.
 
Concerned citizen Viola Hendley, who's taken it upon herself to inspect stations across the fire district, said it's welcome news that the issue is finally near its resolution.
 
"They're selfless individuals who fight for our lives in fires and wrecks and water rescues," Hendley told WIS. "The very least we can do as a society is provide them a decent place to lay their heads."
 
Hendley said firefighters seemed happy with the fixes when she visited just last week, but she did say, during her short time inside the station, she started feeling upper-respiratory symptoms.
 
Richland County also confirmed to WIS that the station is clear of mold and mentioned that the two mold species found months ago were generally pretty harmless at the levels they were found. WIS asked the county why it took more than a week, based on these e-mails obtained under FOIA, to respond to the original complaint. WIS hasn't heard back from Richland County so far.

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