Thirteen months after a handful of state employees in Moab began complaining about severe respiratory problems, the last of the state's 38 employees there are completing their move to new offices.
"No matter what actions we take, we are not going to alleviate their health concerns," said Jack Quintana, assistant director of the state Division of Facilities, Construction and Management. "And because of our concern over liability, it is best for everyone to just move."That move is being made despite repeated tests by health professionals that show no dangerous levels of any toxic or hazardous substances are present in the building.
State employees began complaining of various health problems in April 1987 - problems they said were a result of chemical substances seeping into the Moab Regional Center or present in the building materials.
Employees with the Department of Social Services moved out of the building about four months ago, and the Utah Highway Patrol and the Driver License Division followed suit about a month ago.
Employees with the state Division of Parks and Recreation and the Division of State Lands and Forestry will move to temporary offices in the Contel Building later this week or early next week.
"We're the last to go," said Max Jensen, southeast regional manager for Parks and Recreation. "We certainly recognize the fact there are employees who have a problem staying here, and it's probably in the best interests of the state to move."
While moving from the existing Moab Regional Center to other offices may resolve health concerns, it won't end the controversial debate. The owner of the building, who has pledged to make whatever repairs are necessary to the existing structure, will likely sue the state for breaking its lease agreement, Quintana said.
Quite a few state employees don't necessarily like the idea of moving.
"We're tickled with this facility," Jensen said. "It has suited our needs. It is comfortable, attractive and is in a convenient, central location. We're right next door to the federal offices."
Moving is an issue that has divided state employees: Those who want to move to new surroundings and those who want to stay. While most state employees have experienced no adverse health symptoms, at least three state employees have suffered severe allergy-like symptoms.
One employee still refuses to work in the building, opting instead to work out of her home until new offices are occupied.
"If it were one person, we could maybe attribute it to hypersensitivity," Quintana said. "But with three, we just can't call it that."
What the state calls it is an unacceptable liability risk.
About a year ago, some state employees began complaining of burning eyes and respiratory problems. Mysterious spots also began appearing on the carpet - spots that "looked like someone had spilled something and then tried to wipe it up," said Jensen.
As time passed, the carpet rotted in those spots. An examination of the carpet revealed high levels of mold. Nine months ago, the carpet was removed and the building was sterilized to remove any remaining mold.
"That didn't seem to help (those with health problems)," said Jensen. "And the strong cleaning agents they used caused others to become ill."
Part of the health problems at the Moab Regional Center stem from an underground gasoline leak that has created health risks for residents of neighboring homes. Health experts say there are low levels of hydrocarbons leaking through cracks in the floors, but not enough to pose health concerns.
Another problem, investigators said, was inadequate ventilation.
At a meeting with state officials, the building's owner and health experts, the Rocky Mountain Health Center recommended various modifications to the building: seal the floor, modify the heating and cooling system, and install ventilators.
The cost for the modifications, which would have been paid by the building's owner, would have run about $40,000. The building's owner promised to fix the problems, but the state instead decided to find new facilities.
"The employees affected resisted coming back to work in the building under any condition," said Jensen.
"And we couldn't guarantee the repairs would correct the health problems," Quintana added. "It will take another two years to mitigate the gasoline leak problem."
Quintana says the DFCM is now seeking proposals for a new state office building somewhere in Moab, either an existing building or a facility that is built specifically to meet the state's needs.