Orange County: Sick Public Office Buildings

By Frank Snepp
|  Friday, Aug 24, 2012  |  Updated 4:17 PM PDT
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Several current and former social workers – including two who gave birth to disabled children and several who have reported breathing problems – want the district attorney to investigate Orange County. The employees say they were exposed to potentially harmful chemicals while working in county buildings. The property’s original owner made oil drilling equipment using toxic materials, which attorneys say spilled onto the property where mold and formaldehyde were found in the air. Colleen Williams reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2012.

Vikki Vargas

Several current and former social workers – including two who gave birth to disabled children and several who have reported breathing problems – want the district attorney to investigate Orange County. The employees say they were exposed to potentially harmful chemicals while working in county buildings. The property’s original owner made oil drilling equipment using toxic materials, which attorneys say spilled onto the property where mold and formaldehyde were found in the air. Colleen Williams reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Aug. 16, 2012.

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A growing number of employees of Orange County are complaining about what they see as a dangerous work place.

They say that three buildings that house the county’s adoption and Social Services programs in the city of Orange are built on contaminated ground, and now they want the district attorney to look into it.

NBC4 investigated allegations that thousands of people, including children up for adoption, have been exposed to potential health risks for nearly two decades.

One of the youngest alleged victims, Gavin Kirk, was born without the ability to walk, talk or even see.

His mother, Sarah Kirk, a former Orange County social worker, blames environmental contamination.

She said she encountered it during her pregnancy while working in one of three county buildings located on North Eckhoff Street in the city of Orange.

"This work site potentially cost my child’s life," Kirk told NBC4.

In testimony before county officials early this year, she called for an investigation, and broke down in tears as she described the medical issues that afflict her son, including structural brain abnormalities, daily epileptic seizures, scoliosis and multiple problems with his gastrointestinal track.

"He's unable to eat with his mouth, use the toilet, show a real smile or laugh," she said as Gavin languished in a wheelchair at her side.

Joining her at the hearing was cancer victim and former co-worker Luisa Fernandez, who testified that she believes that she and other county employees were likewise poisoned at the same facility.

"A lot of my co-workers had been getting ill from autoimmune diseases and having deformed children," she reported.

Fernandez, Kirk, and a growing number of current and former social workers are suing the county and previous owners and managers of the three buildings for allegedly exposing them to serious health risks.

"I believe people have been negligent," Kirk said in an NBC4 interview.

The county leased the Eckhoff site in 1993 and bought it four years ago. A previous owner, Varco International, Inc., made oil-drilling equipment using toxic chemicals.

The plaintiff’s attorney, Peter Alfert, said county officials knew that toxins had spilled onto the property.

"They have intentionally purchased properties that have contaminated soil," Alfert insisted.

For years, Kirk worked in a windowless ground-floor office at 840 North Eckhoff that had previously been a storage room. A large crack sliced through the floor, and occupants complained of strange odors.

The county ordered up air testing in 2009, and according to its own reports found some mold and, later, traces of formaldehyde. The county ventilated the room and sealed the crack, but did not test the soil underneath. By then two of the office staff, including Kirk, had given birth to disabled children, with ailments sometimes associated with exposure to industrial chemicals, according to their doctors.

Meanwhile, co-workers were reporting a sudden rise in respiratory and nerve disorders.

After quitting her job more than a year ago, Kirk began calling publicly for comprehensive soil testing. So did the Orange County Employees Association, OCEA. The union's spokesperson, Jennifer Muir, accused the county of a cover-up.

"The county has behaved more like they’re protecting themselves from potential liability than acting out of concern for their employees," Muir told NBC4.

Following a court order, the county did test the soil last February and, according to its test report, found a cancer-causing chemical called PCE under Kirk’s one-time work place. County officials closed the room but refused demands from the employees’ association to close the building.

In explaining that decision, the county’s Social Services director Michael Riley told NBC4 that subsequent air tests had turned up nothing harmful there.

"We take the experts at their word that the building is safe," Riley said.

But the plaintiffs complained that the air tests could not be verified because the county conducted them in secret, without allowing witnesses.

"Our attorney for some reason felt it was not necessary," Riley confirmed.

The employees’ association also faulted the county for removing – without notice -- more than 300 tons of soil from the Eckhoff property during the recent construction of ground-level solar panels. This activity, according to an OCEA statement, "could impact the results of the testing that plaintiffs have been seeking for over two years."

Environmental toxicologist Dr. James Dalgren confirmed to NBC 4 that such disturbance of the test site could artificially depress contamination readings and make it more difficult to determine previous levels.

"There may have been exposure in the past that was higher, causing some of the problems we have now," he commented after examining available test evidence.

In a recent report to the Orange County District Attorney, the employees’ association called for a grand jury investigation and noted that a new round of air tests had uncovered traces of the carcinogen dioxane in another county building on the Eckhoff site.

"The county environmental consultant has again deemed the levels in the air to be safe for residential and office environments," wrote Lisa Major, OCEA’s assistant general manager. "Yet employees continue to report illness."

"We are hopeful that the Grand Jury can help us find the answers," she continued, "and end this serious threat to public safety."

The district attorney declined to comment on OCEA’s request for an investigation.

Meanwhile, Sarah Kirk laments what she says is the county’s failure to err on the side of caution by clearing the affected buildings.

"I feel that a Russian roulette was played," she said. "I cannot believe that people are still there." 

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