Employee Complaints, Tests Flag Air Quality In State-Leased Office Building

The Bill Ray Center houses up to 160 state employees from the Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Corrections.
The Bill Ray Center houses up to 160 state employees from the Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Corrections.

Air quality test results show high levels of carbon dioxide and dust in Juneau’s Bill Ray Center, an office building the state is leasing for about 160 employees.

For more than a month, the state has fielded complaints from employees about headaches and diesel fumes.

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Julie Bednarski’s desk is at the Bill Ray Center, but she hasn’t been there for more than a week. Her supervisor gave her permission to work from home due to the air quality at the office.

Bednarski is a research biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. In mid-October, she says she started smelling diesel exhaust fumes in the office.

“One day it was pretty heavy and I was starting to feel sick,” Bednarski says.

First National Bank Alaska bought the Bill Ray Center from University of Alaska Southeast in September 2013. Since March, the state has been leasing it for $49,500 a month while the Douglas Island state office building is being renovated. Employees of Fish and Game and the Department of Corrections started moving into the Bill Ray Center last April.

Sunny Haight, administrative director of Fish and Game, started hearing about air quality issues in September.

“Our employees were complaining for quite a while about headaches and other physical symptoms and difficulty in their work environment,” Haight says.

Complaints varied.

“Sometimes they’d say it was fumes and sometimes it smelled like there was something burnt. Sometimes they’d say it was a chemical smell,” Haight says.

She reached out to the State Department of Administration, which handles leasing and facilities. The state first contacted First National Bank Sept. 15 about potential problems with the Bill Ray Center’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. It asked the bank to conduct an air quality test, which the bank didn’t do.

Cheri Gillian, the bank’s communications senior vice president, says the bank has responded in good faith.

“When we started getting the complaints, we engaged with various contractors to ensure that all the equipment in the building was operating at peak efficiency to ensure that all equipment was working and those contractors reported they did not recognize any smells inside the building. Conducting an air quality survey was not off the table; we just hadn’t arrived at that point,” Gillian says.

The state hired environmental engineering firm NORTECH to perform an air quality test in the building in mid-October. Haight says it cost around $8,000. Results came back Nov. 5.

The NORTECH report shows higher than normal levels of carbon dioxide associated with “headaches, sleepiness and stagnant, stale, stuffy air.” Those levels could also lead to increased heart rate, slight nausea, poor concentration and loss of attention. But, they fall below what islegally acceptable.

“What has people concerned is the level that it’s at is very close to unacceptable,” Haight says.

Results also show elevated levels of dust in a part of the Bill Ray Center. First National Bank is constructing a new branch in an adjacent lot. Forklifts, cranes and other heavy machinery have been operating near the building’s fresh air intake.

The NORTECH report indicates inadequate ventilation for the 160 employees. It recommends improving the old HVAC system.

Department of Administration spokesman Andy Mills says the air quality test was done as quickly as possible.

“Unfortunately that was delayed by the owner of the building not acting faster, but the state does not want employees working in areas where they don’t feel that they’re most productive or that there may be any associated health concerns on the employees’ part,” Mills says.

He adds, to speed things up, the state requested NORTECH skip its normal routine of interviewing employees in the building.

On Nov. 10, the state sent a letter to First National Bank stating it was out of compliance with the lease. The state requested a written plan of action by Nov. 14. The bank’s reply reached the state on the 17th.

Gillian says the bank has hired its own consultant, Modern Mechanical, to evaluate the Bill Ray Center this week and doesn’t plan to act until reviewing the consultant’s work.

In the meantime, the state has offered space at the downtown State Office Building to Bill Ray Center employees affected by the air quality.

The state plans to move employees back into the Douglas Island Building this summer.

Full disclosure: The reporter’s husband works in the Bill Ray Center.