CSCC under investigation after fumes leak

Friday, April 16, 2010

There's something of a standoff between Lewisburg and Columbia State Community College because carbon monoxide fumes sent at least 16 people to hospitals last week and suspended classes two days.

The impasse that neither side can forseeably win boils down to liability, and both institutions are examining their agreement on the building and insurance policies, according to City Manager Eddie Fuller and a letter he received from the college's lawyer.

Now, Lewisburg Police Detective James Johnson is investigating the cause of the leak from a heating system boiler. Photos gathered for that probe show a tall ladder in the boiler room that's not a storage area. Fuller and others ask if someone at the school moved the ladder in such a way as to knock the PVC exhaust pipe loose from the boiler's engine, separating it from a connecting rubber boot.

Furthermore, one photo shows a round, red-colored gasoline can - such as one used for lawnmower fuel - stored on the side of the ladder; both against a wall with a built-in electric space heater.

"That just blows my mind," Fuller said Wednesday morning about the photo. "Why somebody would do that, I don't know - put a gas tank by a space heater."

Meanwhile, Marshall County Emergency Management Agency Director Bob Hopkins says, "This is a real issue" for the health of the people affected, emergency responders and those following up on the incident.

"From a hospital perspective on poison control, people who were in the building breathing the fumes should, and the key word is should, be re-evaluated in 22 days," said Hopkins, adding there are different levels of concern for human health in such situations. "It's according to how long you were in the areas and how healthy you are."

Breathing a low concentration of the fumes for a long time could be deadly while breathing a high concentration of carbon monoxide for a brief period would be less of a health threat.

A state-sponsored exercise trained emergency responders on this kind of situation, Hopkins said. The training session's storyline assumed there was a chemical leak affecting horses and people in Shelbyville, and "People scattered to the four winds and getting hold of them was the problem."

That factor arose on Thursday, April 8, Hopkins said: "There was no one person who actually knew who was there."

CSCC Marketing and Public Relations Director Paul Hickey is directing people to a web site statement posted Tuesday afternoon at It says "several students, staff and faculty exhibited illness symptoms serious enough to cause many to seek medical attention."

According to The Daily Herald of Columbia, the college's web site aso says faculty, staff and students looking for information on medical claims should go to

CSCC's Lewisburg campus building was built through a joint effort of the city and Marshall County and the city manager said local leaders want the Lewisburg campus open and that's one reason the city made arrangements for repairs that solved the problem, but they don't feel the liability rests with the city or the county.

"At the suggestion of the State Fire Marshal's Office, we started an investigation," Fuller said Wednesday, noting that it wasn't a criminal investigation at that point in time.

"Our position is: it's not a maintenance issue," Fuller said.

Christine Modisher, general counsel for the Tennessee Board of Regents, including CSCC, wrote to Fuller on Tuesday saying "under the terms of the state lease for the building, the city is responsible for major maintenance of the leased premises, including maintenance and repair of the air conditioning and ventilation system."

Noting carbon monoxide was dispersed throughout the building, Modisher said the problem was corrected under direction of the city and it permitted use of the building to resume on April 12.

Fuller said Blalock Plumbing and Electric of Ellington Parkway conducted repairs and it appears that CSCC wants the city to pay Blalock for its work, estimated at 10 hours worth nearly $400.

Another photo shows a one-foot-square hole cut in the ceiling of the boiler room. Fuller asks if fumes spread from the room through the hole.

The building, according to CSCC's Web site, "was evacuated by the Lewisburg Fire Department, who after a thorough inspection of the building reported that a loose furnace exhaust pipe resulted in carbon monoxide gas being distributed within the building."

Fuller said a carbon monoxide gas sensor was brought to the school by Lewisburg Gas Department. Several sources report 350 parts per million were measured in the building. The Herald quotes the Consumer Product Safety Commission as saying sustained CO levels above 200 ppm can cause disorientation, unconsciousness and possibly death. Fuller said 9 ppm is an acceptable level.

Modisher wrote to Fuller saying "Under both state law and terms of the lease between Columbia State and the city, any claims alleging personal injury from the negligence of Columbia State must be submitted to the State Claims Commission for disposition..."

The Claims Commission is an administrative law court that hears cases brought against the state. It's a buffer between parties before they go to federal or circuit court.

As the city police investigation is proceeding, Fuller said a college official has said "if we want to talk with students or employees their (CSCC) attorney has to be present." He said he believes that will have a chilling effect on employees' statements to police.

The CSCC Web site statement from College President Dr. Janet F. Smith says, "We wish to express our sincere thanks and gratitude to the City of Lewisburg Emergency Responders for their quick actions and response to this situation. We thank everyone for your patience with this process. Please be assured we are working hard to assure that all have their issues, questions and concerns addressed."

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