Courthouse employees exposed to E. coli from raw sewage spill

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by Katie Utehs & KREM.com

KREM.com

Posted on May 23, 2012 at 6:20 PM

SPOKANE-- A 2 On Your Side investigation reveals Federal Courthouse employees walked over sewage contaminated carpet for weeks.
 
The sewage spill happened on April 16th and exposed workers to both fecal coli forms and e-coli at the Thomas Foley Courthouse in downtown Spokane. Some people call the clean-up response inadequate.
 
When the sewage contaminated carpet wasn't removed after repeated requests a whistleblower contacted KREM 2 News.

On April 16th a plumbing back-up inside a men's room in the Thomas S. Foley Federal Courthouse spewed raw sewage.
 
An e-mail from Rose Environmental is one of several obtained by KREM 2 News that details the spill. The company specializes in safety and health, and said “sewage water reportedly sprayed to a height of six feet within the bathroom, and flooded to a reported depth of 0.5 to 2 inches the adjacent basement level elevator lobby screening area, electrical room, and loading dock, and the sub-basement men's locker room and adjacent bathroom.”

Stephanie Kenitzer, who works for the U.S. General Services Administration, said that over the next couple of weeks the area was steam cleaned. She said the carpets were also cleaned.

The affected area is where judges, attorneys and other courthouse employees enter from the garage below the courthouse.  Court Security Officers, overseen by the US Marshals Service, man the secured entrance.
 
Video cameras are not allowed in the building. Pictures and documents were given to us by a source who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.The shots were taken after the area was reportedly sanitized.
 
Toilet paper and a gray colored residue cover the legs of court security screening machines, an x-ray and magnetometer.

Drain water backed up into the basement level wall mounted drinking fountain. A brownish residue can be seen on the side vent of the fountain.
 
Health standards say  cleaning is not enough. The carpet should have been removed immediately.

An e-mail from the Marshals Service shows the agency knew of the problem at least by the 26th of April. It says, “highly absorbent sewage-saturated materials, such as carpet...must be contained and disposed of properly…there's simply too great a health risk involved if any of the materials are dried in place and cleaned only.”

The carpet still wasn't removed and the sewage stench lingered. People who work in the building continued to complain about the lack of response and seemingly inadequate clean-up.

The same day as the Marshals Service e-mail, Rose Environmental tested for E. coli and fecal coli forms. Both bacteria are found in raw sewage and potentially hazardous to human health.

Those tests came back four days later on April 30th. The sub basement men's locker carpet and tile tested positive for both fecal coli forms and E. coli. The basement carpet under the drinking fountain also tested positive for both.
 
Also testing positive for both were the bottom of the magnetometer and the tiled flooring in the men's bathroom. The edges of the main carpeted areas were negative. The drinking fountain tested negative for fecal coli forms, but positive for E. coli on both the fountain surfaces and drain.
 
On May 1st a letter arrived from OSHA requesting the Marshals Service, "investigate the alleged conditions and make any necessary corrections."

When we talked to the GSA two weeks later, they were finally taking action, but still didn't seem concerned about the health risk. "GSA worked with industrial health experts and determined if there were any concerns and determined there was minimal risk to any environmental exposure in the area. They did confirm that removing the carpets was the right thing to do so that's what we're doing," said Kenitzer.
 
Rose Evironmental did not test the amount of bacteria only whether or not it was present.
 
For weeks, people walked on the contaminated carpet, going to offices and courtrooms, then back home to their families. Court Security Officers continued to man the security checkpoint working in the rank conditions.
 
The clean-up will cost around $13,000 and the carpet was removed.
 
Its refreshing news for court employees who say they've held their breath that something would be done.
 
The Marshal's Service declined our requests for an interview, but they did answer a few questions via e-mail. They said, "The U.S. Marshals Service was unaware of the concerns about the initial clean-up until they were brought to our attention. GSA's response was appropriate and timely once the U.S. Marshals Service notified them of the need for a secondary cleanup."
 
The Marshals Office did not say what day they were notified about the need for more clean-up.
 

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