The Valdez Star - Serving Prince William Sound and Copper River Basin

Editor, Valdez Star 

Black mold in city hall is driving fire department changes

City council looks for solutions including a new fire station possibilities


Valdez Star photo

The washing machine used by the fire department has been moved to the bays with fire trucks after dangerous black mold was found in the walls.

Black mold found in the walls of the fire department is driving a push to re-evaluate city hall.

Fire chief George Keeney told the Valdez City Council Monday that two types of black mold - one of which is a severe health hazard -were found in the main downtown fire station that is part of city hall.

"There was two types of mold in there," Keeney said at the special work session to look at the city's capital facilities. "The black mold was kind of a scary one."

Keeney said personnel at the fire department have been experiencing breathing problems on the job and that the department's decontamination room has been sealed off due to black mold contamination.

"It's getting worse and worse," Keeney said, describing how the fire department must now decontaminate and clean equipment at the police station, located on the other end of city hall, and has had to also use the hospital's facilities to clean its ambulances.

Keeney said previously unknown asbestos was also found in the walls of the fire station when work was being performed to remediate asbestos that was documented.

"The problems keep existing," he said, noting the poor ventilation is also causing diesel particulates to sometimes contaminate the air in the old section of city hall.

Chris Farmer, head of the city's IT department, said the environmental problems at the fire department are also effecting his employees, who work in over-crowded space across from the fire department.

City officials dusted off an architectural study of city-owned buildings and facilities from 2009 to begin looking at the most cost effective way to begin looking at ways to address issues inside city hall and other city-owned buildings and facilities.

Department heads were invited to the meeting to give council an update on the current needs of their departments.

A number of city departments, including IT and economic development say the space they currently occupy in city hall is inadequate for their needs with the number of personnel on staff and storage requirements.

The 2009 report, which was commissioned by the city and prepared by McCool Carlson Green Architects, rated the city's various buildings and structures.

The report was created at the time to give city officials a better look at the condition of city-owned properties, many of which were rapidly deteriorating due to lack of maintenance.

Maintenance of city buildings was often deferred in the city's budget processes, especially in the 1990s, which shortened the lifespan of a number of structures.

The portion of city hall the houses the fire department, IT and the Dept. of Economic Development was built in the 1970s according to Lisa Von Bargen, director of economic development.

The balance of the building was added on later and built to a higher standard - but also suffered from a number of deferred maintenance issues.

The current black mold crisis in the old section of city hall is spurring a fresh look at the report.

A number of recommendations were made to increase the lifespan or increase the efficiency of the city's facilities and a number of capital projects have been completed since the report was released in December of 2009.

However, the report is now close to seven years old - problems that have not been addressed since the report was released are now that much older and new ones have cropped up.

City manager Dennis Ragsdale was directed to look at acquiring ATCO trailers as temporary housing for fire department personnel who are required to be on the job 24/7.

How officials will address the black mold problem in the older section of city hall is being fast-tracked. Ragsdale is putting a committee together to look at the community's fire department needs, as well as those of the fire department's employees.

Several options exist for addressing the issues - and all come with a hefty price tag.

Remediation and remodeling are on the table.

A number of council members favored looking at a new standalone fire station for the downtown area while tearing down the old section of city hall and building a modern addition to the structure, which would in turn alleviate space needs for the city's other departments located in city hall.

Keeney said if a new fire station were to be built, he favored a site near the hospital.

While a number of council members said they were open to the concept, Mayor Ruth Knight said she strongly favored keeping emergency services - essentially the fire and police departments - together.

Police chief Bart Hinkle said law enforcement personnel in Valdez can function easily in its current location or at a separate facility with the fire department.

Valdez Star photo

Fire chief George Keeney in front of the department's decontamination room - which has been sealed off due to black mold issues.

However, the police department does utilize the basement of city hall, which experiences periodic flooding issues.

However, moving the police department - which includes the regional jail - could prove costly.

Hinkle authored a report to council last October addressing current and future jail options.

A number of council members believed it could be a hard sell to convince the public that such large capital improvement projects are needed.

"We don't need to sell something," council member Nate Smith said. "We just have to tell the truth."


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