Navy, managers say tests show no extensive mold

Source: http://hamptonroads.com, January 16, 2012
By: Corinne Reilly

Inspections of privately managed military housing have confirmed residents’ complaints about mold and moisture problems, although both the Navy and the management company contend the issue is a maintenance problem, not a public health concern.

Nonetheless, last week, a Richmond-based attorney who has signed on to represent half a dozen families who lived in homes managed by Lincoln Military Housing filed what he said will be the first of several lawsuits against the company over the mold.

Lincoln manages roughly 4,400 rental units in the region, in neighborhoods near Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, Norfolk Naval Station, Oceana Naval Air Station and other military bases. Concerns about mold inside the houses were first reported in November by local TV station WTKR. Several families said their units had moisture problems and water leaks, including around windows and in their bathrooms, roofs and walls. The families alleged that Lincoln repeatedly failed to make adequate repairs, allowing mold to grow. They shared stories about collapsed ceilings and spongy walls filled with visible mold, and some said they’d become sick.

Two local congressmen and a senator became involved in December, after families complained the Navy also was ignoring the problems. Lincoln eventually announced a series of remedies, including new inspections, a change in maintenance contractors and the creation of two new positions for a customer service officer and a resident advocate. Two dozen families were moved out of their homes and into hotels, in some cases before inspections were done.

After some residents said they didn’t trust Lincoln’s inspectors, the company agreed to use only firms approved by the Navy, and the Navy said it would test 14 homes independently.

So far, about half of those families have received results. The Navy provided four of the reports to The Virginian-Pilot at the newspaper’s request. Each notes evidence of water intrusion and mold.

– At a home on Cherbourg Road in Virginia Beach, the residents told inspectors that condensation came through their kitchen light fixtures, that exhaust vents in two bathrooms leaked water, and that when they pushed gently on the ceiling in a closet, their fingers went through.

“Repairs had been done on a ‘dark’ area in the space under the stairwell,” the report says. “Maintenance told them that it was not mold but a picture showed what looked like mold…. Wall materials have been partially removed and patched in the closet under the stairs. It also appears that a white substance, most likely a chemical used to prevent mold growth, has been applied to the structure. However, visible mold growth was present in the back corner of the closet on drywall and fiberglass insulation.”

The residents told inspectors that their allergies had worsened since moving in six months earlier.

– At a home on Ingram Loop in Norfolk, inspectors reported a moldy smell coming from living room walls and visible mold on drywall and on wood framing around an attic door in a bedroom.

“In the second-floor bathroom the floor is soft at the tub,” the report says. “The PVC pipe and gutters used to redirect water at the front exterior of the property are ill fitting and leaky. The downspout that carries water from the upper roof does not appear to line up in a way that would direct water into the gutters.”

– At a home on Glen Falls Court in Virginia Beach, the residents reported no health problems, but inspectors found mold and water damage.

The report also notes instances of inadequate repair work:

“Mold grows on the drywall between the tub and toilet. The drywall has been repaired and painted three times and the mold keeps coming back.”

“The second-floor bathroom tub overflow valve leaks water into the kitchen light fixture. The kitchen light shorted out due to water damage and was replaced approximately six months prior to the inspection. Instead of repairing the problem, maintenance told the (residents) not to fill the bathtub up so high.”

In some instances, inspectors called for follow-up assessments, such as breaking into walls or using infrared technology.

Still, in recent interviews, Lincoln and Navy officials said they don’t think the problems are as serious or widespread as they’ve been made out to be. Speaking about the results of the Navy inspections, Capt. Don Hagen, director of industrial hygiene at the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, said, “It’s not extensive mold.”

“If you listen to WTKR, it’s like a science fiction movie – there’s mold monsters growing everywhere,” Hagen said. “And that’s just not the case.”

Lincoln’s president, Jarl Bliss, said the reports he’s seen indicate the same thing. “There are spots here or there,” he said. “It’s not extensive.”

Bliss noted that while Lincoln manages more than 4,000 units in Hampton Roads, and tenants in all of them have been offered free mold inspections, only about 200 families have requested the tests.

As for the two dozen families who were moved out of their homes, he said the fact that Lincoln agreed to pay for their hotel stays and food per diems doesn’t necessarily mean their units weren’t safe. In some cases, decisions to move families were made before inspections were done, based simply on tenants’ concerns. Others were moved because repairs at their homes would have been disruptive, Navy officials said.

Some will be moved back into their homes after inspections and repairs are finished, while others have agreed to move into other Lincoln homes, the Navy said. A few have chosen not to return to Lincoln communities.

Bliss said he believes that Lincoln’s homes and any problems they have are typical of any in the region of comparable age. Some of the company’s properties are more than 50 years old.

Asked whether he thinks Lincoln fell short in its maintenance, Bliss said, “I think you’re always going to find a couple of issues here or there with a portfolio this large.”

The Navy has gone further in acknowledging the problems.

“We could have done better,” said Rear Adm. Tim Alexander, who heads the service’s mid-Atlantic region. “There is no doubt about it.”

But he rejected the notion that turning over off-base military housing to private companies was a mistake. In 2005, the properties now overseen by Lincoln were transferred to Mid-Atlantic Military Family Communities LLC, a public-private arrangement in which Lincoln is responsible for managing and maintaining the homes, in the short term and the long term. The Navy owns the land and is a minority member of the LLC.

In Hampton Roads, Alexander said, the arrangement has raised more than $600 million for new construction and renovations, at no cost to taxpayers. He said he has worked with Lincoln in the past on the West Coast and with other companies in Hawaii and the South, and on the whole, he sees the public-private ventures as “a huge win.”

But he said that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. In addition to increasing spot checks of tenant service calls to Lincoln, he said the Navy is re-examining its agreements for changes that might better protect families.

Some tenants said the steps that Lincoln and the Navy have taken are helping, including Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Adam Quintela, whose home was among those inspected by the Navy. Quintela said his roof leaked for four years before Lincoln fixed it. When the company finally did, crews uncovered “quite a bit of mold,” he said.

While he has yet to see the results of the Navy inspection, he said the fact that one was done is a start.

“We’re looking for reassurance that we’re safe and the roof is really fixed,” he said. “I’m hopeful we’ll get that reassurance.”

At least a handful of tenants are less satisfied, including Shelley Federico, who left her Lincoln home with her daughter and her husband, a Marine, in October, a year after they moved in. She said Lincoln repeatedly failed to fix the Norfolk home’s leaking windows and water-intrusion problems in the foundation. Her family finally moved after Lincoln cut open one of their walls, revealing what Federico called a “shocking” amount of mold.

She said she experienced an immediate, severe allergic reaction, and she believes her entire family was made sick by mold. Besides respiratory problems and sinus infections, Federico said she suffered gastrointestinal symptoms, fatigue and memory loss.

“At first Lincoln and the Navy wouldn’t admit there’s mold,” she said recently. “Now they’re finally admitting there’s mold, but they still won’t say it made people sick.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, links between mold and lethargy and memory loss have not been proven.

Federico has hired David S. Bailey, a Richmond-based lawyer who said he is also representing half a dozen other families who lived in Lincoln homes.

On Wednesday, Bailey filed the first of what he said will be several lawsuits against the company. It seeks punitive damages and alleges that Lincoln broke state law in its handling of Federico’s home. It says Lincoln “adopted policies to hide and obscure mold contamination,” including policies that instructed workers never to use the word mold with tenants and instead call it dirt; to perform repairs as cheaply as possible; and to test for mold only after it had been removed so that tenants “would never know what molds or what mold levels to which they were exposed.”

In an interview, Bailey said, “There are a number of families who suffered exposure before Lincoln decided to take this seriously.”

Lincoln and Navy officials said they couldn’t comment on the lawsuit or on individual tenants’ cases, but Hagen and another official at the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, Capt. Mark Hammett, a doctor who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine, said they’re concerned that amid all the attention that’s been paid to the issue, some residents might be unnecessarily panicked, and some might be wrongly attributing health problems to mold exposure.

While Hagen and Hammett were careful to say that all tenants with mold exposure concerns should see their doctors, especially those with weakened immune systems, they noted that research shows only about 10 percent of people are susceptible to mold-related medical conditions, primarily allergies and respiratory problems. They warned that myths about so-called “black mold” and “toxic mold” are all over the Internet, a result of bad, decades-old research that has never been replicated.

They also cautioned against doctors who use unproven treatment protocols. Hagen said he’s become aware that some tenants are seeing a doctor for mold exposure who claims to have “new research that no one else in the world knows about.”

“There’s a lot of money to be had in remediating mold,” he said.

Kim Mosser, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Scott Rigell, who was the first federal legislator to meet with Lincoln tenants about their mold concerns, said it’s still too early to say whether the remedies Lincoln has announced will be enough.

“I can tell you that we’ve been getting fewer calls from constituents,” Mosser said. “We hope that’s a sign that things are getting done.”

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