Prosecutor in dust-up over asbestos threat in office

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Like the sands of time, dust regularly falls on offices of the Lake County prosecutor, who hopes it isn't laced with asbestos.

"A number of our employees have been complaining about sinus problems and are very concerned," Prosecutor Bernard Carter said Monday.

Forty-year-old asbestos fireproofing hangs above the heads of more than 40 of his deputy prosecutors and clerical support staff along with countless visitors.

He notes with irony the asbestos has been removed in the county jail, but not where his staff works.

County Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, said, "Unfortunately, there still is asbestos in the buildings, but as long as it's not disturbed, it's not hurting anybody." Commissioners oversee county building maintenance.

Nevertheless, Carter said he and his employees presented the Board of Commissioners with a petition to address the problem when they were dramatically reminded of it two months ago following a water line that burst in their office, spraying their law library and evidence closet with sewage, The (Munster) Times reported.

"The workmen who came in were all taped and dressed up like they were going into space. Our employees were walking around unprotected and wondering what they were being exposed to," Carter said.

Scheub said, "Anytime anybody complains about air quality, we take that very seriously." He said commissioners ordered Robert Rehder, superintendent of county government buildings, to hire a firm to test the air quality. "He told commissioners they found nothing detrimental to anybody's health."

Barb McConnell, one of Carter's chief deputies, said, "Testing hasn't been done in this office for years. We have had to tape plastic up in our victim-witness office so the stuff won't fall on their desks. When there is movement upstairs, you can't tell me that doesn't disturb it."

It's no better for much of the floor above Carter's office. Public Defender David Schneider said asbestos is above the heads of his staff. Senior Lake Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez said three of the four original courtrooms there still have it. "So far, no one has gotten sick. We haven't held a discussion about it, because out of sight, out of mind."

Asbestos is a mineral fiber with heat-insulating and fire-resistance properties that was commercially sprayed into buildings until the mid-1970s, when it was linked to lung cancer in people who inhaled large amounts.

It was present in all three original buildings of the county government center when they opened four decades ago. A federal court mandate prompted county officials to remove it from the jail in the late 1980s.

The state held the county in violation of occupational safety laws in 1990 after material was found on office floors in the courts building. Commissioners posted warnings that year forbidding employees from removing any drop-ceiling tiles except in a dire emergency.

Commissioners spent $12 million between 1993 and 2006 removing asbestos from public and office areas, but the program was halted short of the mark because of cost overruns that occurred when money was diverted to new carpeting, lighting fixtures and other non-asbestos spending.

There are no plans to address asbestos with any of the $12 million the county has just borrowed to address county government building maintenance, Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, said Monday, but he said commissioners need a professional assessment of where asbestos remains, so it can be dealt with in future rehabilitation projects.

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Times

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