Report: Odor in courthouse not hazardous

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: February 21.2007 5:00AM PST

A report on the odor that has shut down the Deschutes County Courthouse and sickened some employees says that the levels of oil and chemicals found in the building should not cause health damage.

The odor was the result of overheated hydraulic oil for a transport elevator in the building’s basement, according to the report from Wise Steps Inc., an industrial hygiene and safety consulting firm hired by the state. Hydraulic oil breaks down into formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, which have a strong odor and can irritate the eyes, nose and respiratory tract, the report says.

Air tests and wipe samples performed by Wise Steps showed that, while the odor moved from the basement to the first and second floors of the courthouse, `there was not emission of hydraulic oil mist into the building or the ventilation system.`

Deschutes County Circuit Court Trial Administrator Ernest Mazorol said that if a mist had permeated the courthouse there “would be oil everywhere.”

“All we’re dealing with, although it’s really noxious, is an odor that it will take some time to rid it out of that building, but that’s probably the best alternative that we could have,” Mazorol said.

Cleaning of the building will continue through Thursday and some staff could start moving back in on Friday, Mazorol said. The courthouse should be open to the public again on Monday, he said.

Temporary courtrooms have been set up in the Deschutes Services Building and Juvenile Justice Building. People who need to file court papers or pay fines can do so in the gray building to the north of the courthouse at 1164 N.W. Bond St.

“We’ve got so many people displaced it’s going to take us time to get back to where we need to be,” Mazorol said. “Our plan is to open up on the 26th with the full range of services.”

In keeping with the report’s recommendations, cleaning of the courthouse’s carpets and all horizontal surfaces like desks and chairs will continue this week. The basement, where the odor was strongest, has also been sealed off and is being ventilated separately.

“The building is not a safety hazard,” Mazorol said, pointing out that the consultants found that levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde were below what is required by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“There shouldn’t really be any health issues, prolonged health issues, that people have to be concerned about,” he said.

Courthouse employees first began complaining of the odor and symptoms such as headaches and burning eyes on Feb. 4 . All jury trials were canceled that week, and judges then decided to close the courthouse on Feb. 12, although county staffers said they believed it to be safe.

Even with the cleanup effort, some people may continue to detect the odor for an indefinite period of time, Mazorol said.

“To most everyone that comes thorough that building, they’re not going to smell anything, but then there’s that hypersensitive person that no matter what you do they’re going to smell it,” he said, adding that it “could take a couple of months or longer” for the smell to be completely gone.

It will also take some time for the courts to get back on schedule after this delay, he said.

“These type of disruptions are just really difficult on the community and us as well – I can’t tell you how many cases we’ve had to reschedule,” Mazorol said. “It’s going to take us several months, probably, to dig out from under this.”

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