Air traffic controllers sue over alleged mold problems

A group of Detroit-based air traffic controllers and their spouses have sued nine companies in a Michigan court, alleging that the firms failed to fully remove toxic mold from the facility where they worked and did not complete testing that would have revealed the extent of the problem.

The controllers say the problem is so severe that it has sickened many of their colleagues and forced them to choose between their jobs or their health. They filed suit earlier this month in Wayne County Circuit Court, seeking damages of more than $25,000 to compensate for health problems and lost earnings.

"I've been to a specialist for my lungs, and he's told me to just get out of the building, but I can't go from having the nice income that I have to nothing," said Vincent Sugent, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative for the facility and one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "What am I going to do?"

Elizabeth Isham Cory, a regional spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the facility "has been tested extensively, not only by the FAA, but by several other federal agencies. The conclusion is that the facility is clean; the remediation has been done."

According to the lawsuit, the mold problem was discovered in September 2004 during a visual inspection of the Detroit Metropolitan Airport Air Traffic Control Tower by representatives of NATCA and the FAA. A subsequent investigation by a private firm revealed "significant" levels of toxic or black mold.

According to the lawsuit, the report indicated that "exposure . . . may result in health problems in susceptible individuals," and said "the presence of Stachybotrys indicated the affected wall materials had been saturated for an extended period of time."

The FAA began a series of contracts for evaluation and mold removal with the companies named in the controllers' lawsuit. Michigan-based MIS Corp. won the initial contract. The suit alleges that during remediation, the firm ripped out drywall in certain areas to expose the mold, but failed to seal off the areas. Debris spread -- and with it mold -- throughout the facility, the controllers claim.

Subsequently, the FAA hired Coach Catastrophe Cleaning & Restoration Services to spray the remaining mold. The firm did so, according to the lawsuit, "without posting any material safety data sheets for the chemicals used or identifying what was used. Within hours of the spraying, eight air traffic controllers became ill and sought immediate medical treatment."

Despite these and other efforts to wash away the mold with bleach and household cleaners, the controllers say the mold remains, and subsequent contractors named in the lawsuit failed to take appropriate steps to remove it and to perform tests that would show the level of contamination.

The FAA hired Applied Environmental to perform testing, which concluded that there was no visible mold or source of water that could be causing mold to grow. But the lawsuit alleges that, "unlike Mold Quest [the original inspection firm] . . . Applied did not limit the use of their report to the FAA based only on a visual inspection, permitting the FAA to use their report to say there was no microbial problem."

Bureau Veritas North America, the company that owns Clayton Group Services, one of the firms named in the lawsuit, said in a statement that "all services performed by the company were provided in accordance with industry standards. We believe the plaintiffs' claim against the company is meritless, and the company is confident that its name will be cleared."

None of the other firms named in the suit returned calls seeking comment.

NATCA hired the firm Wonder Makers to perform alternate inspections, which concluded that visual inspections were not sufficient to determine that the mold was actually gone and recommended invasive testing of walls, particularly in the facility's elevator shaft. The suit alleges that the FAA refused to permit invasive testing.

"FAA has worked long and hard on the remediation of mold in this facility, and it has been clean for some time," said the agency's Cory. She said, and Sugent acknowledged, that previous attempts to sue have been dismissed in federal court.

But Sugent said he is not giving up, adding that the problem may extend to other facilities.

"Kansas City has an identical tower, and they're having similar problems," he said. "We're pretty damn sure we know what's spreading it, because the elevator shaft is a big piston. It just pushes it as it goes up and sucks it in as it goes down."

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation held hearings on the physical state of air traffic control facilities in late July. At the time, Bruce Johnson, FAA's vice president of terminal services, told subcommittee members that a consolidation project, scheduled for completion in 2014, would determine which buildings needed to be upgraded or replaced and would help save money, which could be used to fund the upgrades.

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