Changes made to consultant’s report by county engineer supported DPW’s decision to allow Cornell Cooperative Extension staff to reoccupy the Griffing Avenue building last summer — only to move back out two months later
The county’s handling of air quality issues at the mostly vacant Cornell Cooperative Extension building in Riverhead, where employees were complaining of mystery illnesses for more than a year before being moved out, has the attention of Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy.
The chief engineer at the Suffolk County Department of Public Works dictated changes to an environmental consultant’s report about the building’s air quality, including adding a recommendation that employees could reoccupy the building. After the consultant’s amended final report was submitted to then-public works commissioner Gil Anderson last year, Anderson gave the all-clear for Cornell Cooperative Extension to move back into the building.
But employees began complaining again about the same issues and illnesses. By mid-October, Cornell Cooperative Extension offices were closed again. For a second time, its staff was subsequently moved to alternative worksites.
“I am very surprised that any arms-length outside entity would agree to have their final work product subject to the customer’s review and changes,” Kennedy said in an interview. He said his office will look into the air quality investigations and repairs at the Riverhead building and perhaps launch an audit into the project. “The county receives a significant amount of funding from the state through Cornell,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy says he’s looking at how the county spent more than $100,000 trying to figure out why the building was making Cornell Cooperative Extension employees sick, before deciding last month to spend nearly half a million dollars to replace the rooftop HVAC units on the building. Relocating the employees and settling them into other worksites — twice — was likely a significant expense, he said.
The building, built about 18 years ago, has been largely vacant since June 1, 2018, following widespread reports of unexplained illnesses by Cornell Cooperative Extension staff beginning in March 2017 — the start of a series of gas leaks at the building that forced evacuations and investigations by town and county fire marshals. Employees complained of headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing, asthma attacks, chest pains, lightheadedness, mouth and throat irritations, burning, watery eyes, runny noses, metallic tastes and more, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.
DPW chief engineer Michael Monaghan edited a July 11, 2018 report from Enviroscience Consultants addressed to him and engineer Thomas Szumczyk. Monaghan’s edits were incorporated into a final report bearing the same date addressed to Anderson, according to the documents.
The DPW engineer made notes to the “Conclusions & Recommendations” section of the Enviroscience report directing edits that included deleting two of the consultant’s eight bullet-pointed recommendations to DPW, changing the language of another and adding a new bullet point. Each change was incorporated into the final report, which was addressed to the commissioner.
Monaghan’s edits are contained in a document provided by DPW in response to a to RiverheadLOCAL FOIL request bearing the filename “MJM Comments.” DPW confirmed that MJM is Monaghan’s initials and the comments were made by him
At the end of the “Conclusions & Recommendations” section, Monaghan added a note that read:
“ADD THE FOLLOWING BULLET: ‘EnviroScience observed no other detrimental environmental condition that would preclude re-occupancy of the facility.’
This sentence was added to the final report submitted to the commissioner, who in August gave the all-clear for Cornell Cooperative Extension to re-occupy the building.
In one note, Monaghan highlighted two bullet points and wrote “DELETE THIS BULLET” next to each, which originally read:
• “Enviroscience encourages the regular monitoring of conditions at these ceiling diffusers in the future to note any new microbial growth or other irregularities.”
• “Regular cleaning of the duct system to reduce the potential for mold growth and airborne contaminants is recommended.”
Both bullet points were omitted from the final report submitted to the DPW commissioner.
For a third bullet point that read: “Regular maintenance and mechanical inspections of rooftop HVAC units from a reputable HVAC firm” Monaghan added a note that said, “Delete ‘regular’ and replace with ‘continued’.” The change was also incorporated into the final version of the report.
The county defended the changes through a DPW spokesperson.
DPW hired Enviroscience in the spring of 2018 to perform indoor air quality assessments in the building at a cost of $25,000, according to a county purchase order dated May 29, 2018 indicating the work was to be done as an “EMERGENCY!!!” per the commissioner’s direction.