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Fumes force closure of county courthouse

Patrick McCartney

El Dorado County officials were forced to close a portion of the county courthouse in Placerville last week, when some employees became ill and complained of fumes seeping from an area that had been closed for repairs.

Results of tests on air samples are expected today, and could identify the cause of respiratory symptoms reported by some employees Tuesday that prompted Judge Patrick Riley to clear the building at 2 p.m. A panel of jurors deliberating a case remained in the building but reported no problems.

Employees reported an odor that they described as musty, moldy or smelling like wet cement.

The upper level of the courthouse had been closed for several weeks, while licensed asbestos workers removed old asbestos insulation, but was reopened Monday afternoon. The complaints started the next day.

On Wednesday, the 35 employees were allowed to return to work at the courthouse. Some of the employees again reported sore throats, itchy eyes, headaches and breathing difficulties, but administrators rejected a request by the county employees union to close the building.

The union went to court on Thursday seeking a temporary restraining order, and Superior Court Judge Susan Harlan of Amador County ordered the county to relocate any employee who requested a transfer.

Harlan will consider a preliminary injunction at a hearing scheduled Tuesday.

“We believe the courthouse remains an unhealthy work place and the county should reassign all employees,” said Chuck Egbert, executive director of the El Dorado County Employees Association.

Judith Kerr, a deputy county counsel, said the county took immediate steps when the complaints surfaced on Tuesday, but added that many of the courthouse employees did not report any symptoms.

“We have no evidence that links the complaints to the work that was going on,” Kerr said. “We were pulling in quite a bit of outside air. It could have been pollen.”

Yet, the county has kept the upper level closed since Judge Riley cleared the courthouse Tuesday. Kerr said each floor has its own air circulation system, and employees have changed the air filter on each floor.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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