Faculty, students raise health and safety concerns akin to Poe Hall ahead of Dabney renovations (2024)

Ahead of a multi-year, $140 million renovation to Dabney Hall, faculty and students in the chemistry department have flagged concerns about the safety of the project. Construction and safety managers involved in the project say the University is confident the occupied renovation will be conducted safely.

According to a September 2023 report from environmental engineering consulting firm S&ME, Dabney Hall contains high enough levels of asbestos, PCBs, mercury and lead that will likely be disturbed during the renovation and need to be removed before construction can begin. The scope of this investigation only examined spaces that will be affected by the first phase of the project.

Occupied renovation

The main concerns for the project center around the University’s plan to conduct the renovation while faculty and students continue to occupy the building. Jon Lindsey, professor in the Department of Chemistry, believes the building should be vacated during the project.

“All of us understand that Dabney is a trainwreck of a building that needs to be replaced,”Lindsey said. “We understand that. What we don’t understand is why they want to do this on top of us. Why they think that’s an acceptable process — it’s not an acceptable process. If any one of those administrators were in a decision-making capacity, if they occupied this building, there is not a chance they would ever do this. If their kid worked in that building, there is not a chance they would proceed with this.”

The discovery of PCBs in Poe Hall and the subsequent closure of the building has underscored faculty and student’s concerns. David Muddiman, professor in the Department of Chemistry, foresees similar results down the line.

“Poe Hall was an unexpected tragedy … no one put stuff there to cause harm,” Muddiman said. “But Dabney Hall renovation is a premeditated tragedy because we know things are going to get out of control when they start renovating it and somebody 20 years from now will get sick, and then someone else will get sick, and then you’ll say, ‘well geez, I wonder if it was because I was at Dabney Hall.’”

Alena Joignant, a third-year Ph.D. student in analytical chemistry, described the renovation as being “almost like a mandatory health hazard to complete your degree.”

“I feel so sorry to students and the students that they're actively recruiting to join the chemistry program,” Joignant said. “They don't know necessarily about the PCBs in the building, and they're still joining the program to do their research during the renovation.”


PCBs were identified in the interior and exterior caulking of Dabney. The exterior levels were well above the EPA regulation of 50 parts per million, with one sample reaching as high as 23,000 parts per million.

The firm only tested five samples for PCBs, and all were testing caulk material. The caulking tests and results mirror those conducted in Poe Hall in 2018, which experts say should have prompted action from the University to address toxic contaminants when first detected.

Robert Herrick, a retired senior lecturer of industrial hygiene at Harvard University and a leading expert on PCBs, believes that the issue of PCBs in the Dabney caulking is at the same scale of Poe Hall.

“The PCB diffuses out into the masonry, into the brick, into the concrete, around those joints, and around those windows and all, and that's what complicates the remediation,” Herrick said. “I know cases where they actually had to grind out substantial amounts of that masonry and brick material in order to basically remove the source of the PCBs.”

Herrick said such efforts can become so extensive and expensive that project managers often opt to demolish a building rather than try to remediate the PCBs. If the chemicals diffuse into surrounding materials, exposure is still possible after removing the source.

The testing for the PCBs in the 2023 S&ME report was conducted in December of 2022. Herrick said that, if he were an environmental health official at the University, he would have immediately reported the findings.

“I’d be in the office of the EPA regional PCB coordinator the next morning,” Herrick said.

University’s safety plans and procedures

To alleviate safety concerns, the project plans to work on the building one vacated floor at a time and to maintain an empty floor in between active construction and department operations as a buffer.

Cameron Smith, assistant vice chancellor for design and construction, said though an occupied renovation is not ideal, he is confident in the University’s experience in these kinds of projects.

“We're trying to do our best to look after the interests of the occupants,” Smith said. “And we're gonna do our best to keep them operating, keep them teaching, keep them doing research in a safe manner. We've done this before. We just have to build that trust within, keep it on track and I think it'll be successful.”

Remediation and abatement processes to remove hazardous materials will be conducted under the direction of the University’s Environmental Health and Safety department. Bob Segura, director of EHS, said abatement processes will be done upfront before mechanical, electrical or any other contracting work will commence.

Segura said abatement processes for the materials in question mostly follow a common procedure in accordance with EPA guidelines. He said because the project is well over a year away from breaking ground in Dabney, most of the finite details of the abatement processes specific to the building environment have yet to be ironed out.

“We know what we need to do, we know how to do the work we're doing in a very safe, efficient, environmentally friendly, compliant manner,” Segura said. “That's not what the challenge is. The challenge is more. How do you plan for system disruptions and upgrades and transitions? How do you keep everything running while you're replacing a roof? Right? As you're upgrading a system, how do you maintain it?”

Herrick said he thinks an extensive study of PCB contaminants in the building is necessary given the known presence of materials used in its construction. The original design firm for Dabney stated the use of a black Thiokol caulking compound — known to contain PCBs in the 1960s — on the exterior precast panels of the building.

“I think you'd really want to do a very comprehensive inventory of the different caulking and sealing type materials throughout the building,” Herrick said. “And if you had a really comprehensive investigation, you knew where the PCBs were and how extensive it was, I think you could make a good decision about whether it actually is logical to think it's worth remediating these buildings at all.”

Herrick said a competent hazard assessment should entail holistically looking at the caulk, lights, soil around the building and ventilation systems. Smith said general testing of the building is still ongoing.

Melinda Box, former safety officer and chair for the chemistry department’s safety committee, moved to Elon University in 2022. Box said the question isn’t whether or not the project can be conducted safely, but if building occupants can trust those who will carry out the renovations.

Box said in her time with the department, which spanned over nine years, the Environmental Health and Safety division often downplayed faculty’s concerns.

“They were not supportive in my view, which was often the case I encountered,” Box said. “They would delay and they would make communication unclear. And they wouldn't appear to be curious — that was the biggie. There was no curiosity about our concerns and our issues.”

In her capacity as safety officer, Box was the designated departmental liaison to EHS. Box doesn’t believe that the group is organized to advise the people living in the buildings.

“My view is it's probably the organizational structure in terms of who EHS reports to that makes them more loyal to protecting the institution, then they are concerned about actual health and welfare,” Box said. “So what I felt like was when the two came in conflict — meaning the institution's appearance or outlook or expenses — and health and well being of the people who were occupying the buildings, the former won out.”

History and future of abatements in Dabney and Cox

Faculty are no stranger to renovations in both Dabney and Cox Hall. Box said less major projects in the past have caused significant disruption to the work and teaching of the department.

“So they've had a taste of what this could be like, but that to some extent, is a fraction of what they would have to go through in this renovation,” Box said. “And the way that EHS and the campus are responding to what's going on in Poe Hall, I think there's good reason for them to feel insecure about whether their own exposure is of any concern that would bring about sufficient protection and testing.”

“NC State's track record of doing renovations in Dabney Hall is atrocious,” Lindsey said. “There's no other word for it. There’s renovations that have been done that have been cavalier, have spread asbestos into the air, into the floor where students walk through the space. It's just, it's unacceptable.”

In 2016, Leslie Sombers, professor in the Department of Chemistry, filed a report of injury that cited having several exposures to asbestos. In one instance, Sombers discovered a suspicious pile of material directly outside her office after abatement had been conducted by subcontractors. An EHS official tested the material and confirmed it was asbestos.

In the S&ME report, asbestos was identified throughout the building. This included the drywall system, laboratory bench tops, pipe insulation, flooring, fume hoods and other locations. Most of these materials were labeled as in “good” condition and with low potential for disruption.

Faculty underscored that beyond the known presence of PCBs, asbestos, lead and mercury, an immeasurable amount of other chemicals have been spilled in the buildings since their conception.

Smith said monitoring and testing of hazardous materials will continue throughout the renovation. He said the University will do all it can to create a safe environment.

“I think we're doing the best we can with the money we have from the state to make Dabney a functional, safe building,” Smith said. “And I really can't speak to why a certain number of faculty just aren't very happy with the situation.”

David Muddiman said he feels the potential exposure to hazardous materials is being overlooked by the University.

“The University can wash their hands — ‘prove it,’ you will never be able to prove it,” Muddiman said. “I’m a chemist. I’m a measurement scientist. I measure molecules. I measured PCBs back in a previous life, and there’s no way you can prove that because there was some level of PCBs at some number that someone reported 20 years ago, that caused you [to get] cancer. It’s just almost impossible. You’ll never get any traction. So you’ll just sit there and die. And that’s not right. There’s something really disturbing about that mentality at the University right now.”

Faculty, students raise health and safety concerns akin to Poe Hall ahead of Dabney renovations (2024)
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