The Utah Public Employees Association says workers should not be forced to return to work at the Moab Regional Center until gasoline fumes suspected of causing employee illness have been reduced to safe levels.

UPEA Executive Director Rhett F. Potter said Wednesday that "the health and welfare of employees should be the administration's prevailing concern."Neal P. Stowe, director of the Utah Department of Facilities Construction and Management, which leases the building, did not disagree with those sentiments. But he pointed out that the building is 60 percent vacant and temporary housing has been leased for employees.

"Nobody has been forced to stay in the building," said Stowe. "We've not yet directed anyone to go back into the building."

Workers in the building have complained of nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and respiratory problems. A monthlong study by the Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health suggested that gasoline fumes may be seeping into the building. Stowe said the fumes may result from gasoline leaching into the soil from nearby service stations and brought to the building by underground water.

The report indicated the gasoline concentrations are below the levels considered dangerous a result that leaves state officials unsure how to proceed.

Stowe reluctantly noted that some of the illness may be either sympathetic or psychosomatic. But he quickly adds that he is not discounting the illness and believes most of the sickness was genuine.

"There was an increased incidence of symptoms among the groups remaining in the building compared with those that vacated early," Stowe said. "That suggests there's a problem."

And the UPEA, in a news release, asserts that "safe levels are not available for hydrocarbons."

"These gases are known irritants," the release says. "They are present in the office, likely drawn in by ventilation systems from a gasoline plume in the area."

At any rate, Stowe said the state will attempt to minimize the leakage by taking the carpet off the floor, sanding the cement and then sealing it. He said he also plans to modify the mechanical venting system to provide more fresh air. Those changes would take three to five weeks.

Still, "there's no guarantee that will solve problem," he said.

Stowe and Potter planned to meet with workers in Moab Thursday afternoon to get their feelings about the problem. He said those comments will be included in a final recommendation.

But Stowe said there is some urgency in resolving the difficulties because the state is leasing both the building and other facilities to house workers in the interim.

"We're continuing to pay the leases, and we just can't afford it for long," Stowe said.