Sonoma State University focus of asbestos-related lawsuit
A longtime Sonoma State University employee’s lawsuit is raising questions about asbestos contamination on campus amid allegations that supervisors ignored his warnings about the problem and then retaliated against him when he reported it to authorities.
Thomas R. Sargent, an environmental health and safety specialist, claims that he was forced to resign after repeatedly raising concerns about asbestos problems at the Rohnert Park campus, including that asbestos dust likely contaminated the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems throughout six buildings.
The administration acknowledges the presence of asbestos in a number of buildings but denies that it poses a health hazard based on previous tests as well as monthly measurements taken since January.
Despite those reassurances, word of the potential asbestos danger has unsettled both students and faculty.
Articles in the Sonoma State Star student newspaper, which first wrote about the issue last month, describe professors who say they don’t use their own offices, instead meeting students at other locations. One student wrote an opinion piece in the paper that said Stevenson Hall, the building at the center of the complaints, is “not a safe place on campus.”
Attorneys also have raised allegations the university tampered with evidence prior to one test for asbestos by extensively cleaning classrooms and offices against a judge’s order.
Also at issue are the emails of Sonoma State President Ruben Armiñana, and whether he inappropriately deleted communications related to Sargent’s whistleblowing and the asbestos issue.
Armiñana declined comment through a spokeswoman. He testified in a deposition that he routinely deletes all of his emails, but lawyers for Sargent claim it was tantamount to destruction of evidence and have asked Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Nancy Shaffer to issue sanctions against the university.
A lawyer for the Board of Trustees of California State University told the judge this week there is no evidence Armiñana was directly involved in the Sargent dispute and his deleted emails can still be accessed on the university’s computer server.
Judge Shaffer initially said she was concerned there was evidence of “sanctionable conduct” regarding tampering with evidence, but after listening to arguments on both sides said she would issue a written ruling later.
Sargent’s lawsuit seeks approximately $15 million in general and punitive damages from the CSU system. Some of the damages are being sought a under a law that allows workers to file suit against their employers for workplace safety violations with 75 percent of the award going to Cal/OSHA, the agency that oversees the regulations.
But the university contends such lawsuits can’t be brought against a public entity.
The lawsuit, filed in May 2014, is scheduled for a trial beginning July 29. Among other issues, a jury is expected to weigh the threshold for safe exposure to asbestos and whether that was exceeded at Sonoma State.
Asbestos was commonly used in building construction until the late 1970s and valued for insulation, sound reduction and fire retardant qualities. But its microscopic fibrous crystals are considered hazardous and carcinogenic, particularly with prolonged inhalation.
Sargent, a certified asbestos consultant, asserts that his supervisor, Craig Dawson, a defendant in the lawsuit, ignored many warnings over the years about damaged asbestos floor tiles in faculty offices that were being scratched and eroded by the casters on chairs, releasing asbestos-contaminated dust.
Sargent routinely collected samples in some buildings, including Stevenson Hall, where he was alarmed by the levels of asbestos detected in 2013 on a windowsill. It confirmed his fears that deadly asbestos fibers were being dispersed into the air throughout faculty offices, according to his lawsuit.
The university did its own testing with a different method and results. When Sargent raised questions about whether the technique met professional standards, “he was reprimanded and things stared to spiral out of control,” said his attorney, Dustin Collier of San Francisco.
The focus of the lawsuit has been Stevenson Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus. The more than half-century-old building houses numerous faculty offices and classrooms.
In two air shafts at Stevenson, an independent testing company in January found levels above the 100,000 asbestos “structures” per square centimeter that are considered high by industry standards.
One air shaft was found with 518,000 asbestos structures per square centimeter, and another had 259,000.