Sonoma State University focus of asbestos-related lawsuit

Faculty and students have expressed concerns about whether Stevenson Hall and other older buildings are safe, amid a lawsuit filed by a longtime Sonoma State University employee.|

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.

Dawson, SSU’s director of environmental heath and safety, did not dispute those measurements Friday, but said they were taken from settled surfaces not accessible to regular occupants of the building.

“Everything we have been doing is showing we don’t have any dangerous or unsafe conditions,” he said.

He said the university has done a “phenomenal job” maintaining floor and wall surfaces with wax, epoxy, paint and other covering to avoid airborne release of asbestos fibers.

“We have never had an episode where we have had dangerous conditions in our buildings,” he said. “We have had a number of reviews of the buildings and the program itself.”

On the Sonoma State website, the university maintains there is no evidence of any exposure above recognized EPA and or Cal/OSHA applicable limits.

“Results from surface asbestos dust sampling are not indicative of employee or public exposure,” the administration said in a statement on the university’s website. “All area testing has shown no airborne asbestos had been detected in all six buildings using recognized EPA air sampling methodology.”

But the controversy has resonated with the university’s more than 600 faculty members, whose union filed a grievance over the issue to ensure they have a safe working environment.

Faculty representative Anne Janks said Thursday there has been difficulty getting timely and adequate information from the administration on the issue. The faculty union recently hired its own consultant with extensive background in safety and healthy issues, and asbestos in particular.

“We want to ensure the faculty receives accurate information and analysis and advice … and (understands) what it means if you have asbestos in the intake exhaust units,” Janks said. “ It’s important to understand where the asbestos is coming from and the different potential sources.”

A School of Education lecturer, Elizabeth Galvez-Hardin, who has worked in Stevenson Hall for 19 years, gave a signed declaration as part of the lawsuit indicating she believes her lymph cancer, which she was diagnosed with in 2010, is associated with environmental toxins.

In addition to asbestos, Sargent says the university also put students, faculty, day care children and others in danger with the manner in which lead-based paint chips on the roof of the physical education building were scattered with a leaf blower in 2012.

He claims he warned that the leaf-blowing technique would violate state public health regulations and instead recommended using a vacuum to remove the substance to ensure it wasn’t dispersed, but was rebuffed by his supervisor, Dawson.

Sargent reported the incident to a number of regulatory agencies. As a result, Cal/OSHA cited Sonoma State for violating lead standards and the Sonoma County Department of Emergency Services fined the university for the incident, according to the lawsuit.

Sargent said as a result of some of his complaints, a vice president used his influence to cause university police to “begin surveilling and subtly intimidating the plaintiff.”

SSU spokeswoman Susan Kashack said Armiñana was unavailable to comment Friday on the allegation, and that he generally does not comment on pending litigation.

Sargent also said it appeared Dawson tried to retaliate against him by, among other things, directing him to transfer by hand 4,000 pounds of sewer-contaminated debris to a garbage truck, exacerbating a chronic back problem.

Dawson said he is prohibited from comment on the allegations due to the ongoing litigation.

“I’d love to comment,” he said. “I hope our justice system brings everything to light.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or On Twitter@clarkmas.

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