Asbestos complaint exposes tension in Benton County

Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldOctober 25, 2013 

A complaint about possible asbestos exposure at the Benton County courthouse in Prosser has exposed some tension in county government.

Officials said a series of facility complaints from Assessor Barbara Wagner's office has cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars. She describes a "good ol' boy" system that has ostracized her.

A construction project this summer upgraded some bathrooms on the third floor of the courthouse, above the assessor's office. The complaint, from an assessor's employee, said the work was leading to asbestos exposure through dust and debris.

A state Department of Labor & Industries inspection in August found no violations and no penalties were assessed.

Wagner said employees were concerned because an asbestos survey five years ago found trace amounts of asbestos fibers in insulation above the drop-in ceiling in her office. The trace amounts subsequently were removed. But the survey left open the possibility of more asbestos elsewhere.

Wagner said she wasn't told before the recent bathroom work began that the county arranged for an asbestos survey of the construction area and had a contractor remove asbestos-containing material.

She didn't find out until after the construction debris and dust had reached a peak, she said.

However, the county's risk manager and safety coordinator said elected officials and department heads were told about the asbestos abatement before the bathroom construction started.

Commissioner Shon Small, chairman of the board of commissioners, said the safety of the public and employees is paramount and the county takes concerns and complaints seriously.

The county has spent about $340,000 since the mid-1990s on studies and facility improvements stemming from assessor's office complaints, officials said.

That includes indoor air quality studies of the county annex in Kennewick, where the assessor's office used to have a satellite office.

Wagner closed her office at the annex temporarily in January 2008, saying poor air quality and mold was making her employees sick.

Two separate investigations found no indoor air quality violations, but they recommended improvements to the ventilation system serving the assessor's area, the Herald reported in 2008. One found "possible mold colonization" in the ventilation system.

The county replaced ducts and made other improvements to the system, but Wagner said the health problems persisted, the Herald reported.

She closed her office at the annex indefinitely in May 2008. The department's Kennewick workers relocated to the county justice center in Kennewick that fall.

As assessor's office worker told the Herald this week that the health problems have gone away since the move.

County risk management officials said annex air quality complaints have too.

When it comes to the $340,000 figure, Wagner said it's unfair to put that cost on her office, when, for example, air quality studies looked at the whole annex. She also said workers from other departments had air quality concerns.

Wagner, who's held the elected assessor's post more than 20 years, said she has advocated for customers and her employees, and it's the county's responsibility to maintain its facilities.

She said she feels the county operates on a "good ol' boy" system and that at times she's been ostracized when it comes to facilities needs and requests.

Small described the "good ol' boy" comment as unprofessional and said it's incorrect both for past commissioners and the three current commissioners, who all joined the board in the past several years and are a new generation of leadership.

Melina Wenner, the county's risk manager, said the county always takes health and safety concerns seriously, and "we have gone above and beyond to satisfy (the assessor's office) that they are in a safe environment."

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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