On Monday, the County of Orange Social Services Agency called employees working at the Agency facility located at 840 N. Eckhoff Street in Orange for an urgent meeting to discuss toxic waste tests at the location. It turns out, they’ve found significant levels of perchloroethylene, a known carcinogen, in the ground under the facility.
This is the finding from initial testing of soil under the facility which employees have been demanding for years. A dozen current and former employees have been suing the county claiming that working in the building at 840 N. Eckoff Street caused illnesses in themselves or their children. Another employee has filed a workers compensation claim.
The problems with the facility were first raised in a report by Voice of OC in September 2011; Workers Allege Room in County Building Caused Illnesses.
The workers claim their sicknesses — which include rapid hair loss, eye pain, depression, heightened blood-cell counts and autoimmune diseases like lupus — were caused by working in the so-called Red Room. Two employees are also attributing their children’s birth defects to fumes in the room.
The workers first began complaining about the room in 2009. Several workers’ compensation cases have been filed in addition to the lawsuit. A hearing on one of those cases took place on Sept. 20. Another is scheduled for next month.
In a hastily prepared statement the Social Services Agency announced:
In response to ongoing occupant concerns regarding potential soil contamination, the County of Orange elected to conduct active soil gas sampling in shallow soil below and around the southwest portion of the 840 Eckhoff building on Saturday, February 25, 2012. Preliminary results of the soil gas sampling found the presence of tetrachloroethylene (also known as perchloroethylene or “perc”) at levels warranting further investigation.
Voice of OC reported that on January 10th:
Orange County CEO Tom Mauk, responding to pressure from a county supervisor, workers and labor leaders, said Tuesday that the county would have a controversial building tested for toxic contamination.
Supervisors heard testimony from former Social Services worker Sarah Kirk, who said her severely disabled 10-year-old son suffered birth defects after her exposure to toxins in the so-called Red Room in the building on Eckhoff Street in Orange.
“We are taking it the next level of investigation,” Mauk said. “The next step is soils testing.”
But subsequent to that announcement the County delayed the tests for a month and a half. On January 30th, an Orange County Superior Court judge ordered the county to do toxic testing at a building. Those tests have yet to be conducted. The testing conducted over the past weekend are not the independent tests the court ordered, rather they were the tests CEO Tom Mauk previously informed the Board of Supervisors would be conducted by the county.
The county has asserted for the past two years that there are no health risks to employees working at the facility that sits in an industrial zone in Orange, in the late 1990s after the property had been used by Varco, a petroleum drilling company.
In an email to employees of the facility in June 2011, Agency Director Michael Riley indicated that the agency’s limited testing for mold sores, found none. This finding led Dr. Riley to assert; “The building is safe, and if it were, or is ever determined not to be, SSA will be the first to take corrective action.”
In their release on Monday, SSA said:
Based on the most recent indoor air analytical test data collected in August of 2011, the County of Orange does not have an indication that the perchloroethylene in the soil is negatively affecting indoor air quality in the building at this time. However, in an ongoing effort to ensure the health and well-being of building occupants, we will immediately begin additional soil and air gas investigation activities followed by a risk assessment to evaluate the potential risk to building occupants.
Every effort is being made to determine as quickly as possible what risk, if any, there may be to building occupants. SSA executives are maintaining an open line of communication with employees to listen to their concerns and provide answers as quickly as possible. The County of Orange and the Social Services Agency are taking this matter very seriously and will ensure that staff are apprised of updates, as they are available.
The Orange County Employees Association was unmoved by the assurances from the agency and fired off a letter to county officials demanding the immediate evacuation and relocation of all employees from the facility.
“In light of the recent results of the County’s testing that discovered heightened levels of the toxic chemical Perchloroethylene (known as “PERC”) in the soil under the building located at 840 N. Eckhoff, it is critical that the Agency immediately take action to evacuate and close the building;” wrote Lisa Major, Assistant General Manager OCEA. “Ongoing assurances by the Agency that the building is safe for employees have not been credible, and they are now just simply wrong.”
It appears that contrary to the words of Director Michael Riley in June 2011, the Agency prefers to continue to risk the health of hundreds of employees rather than assure their safety while further testing is conducted. Does anyone remember Love Canal, our national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations?
Further information about tetrachloroethylene (a.k.a PERC) from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can be found here.