Bennington workers leery of returning to state office complex

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(Host) Workers from the now vacant Bennington state office complex met Thursday with the commissioners of buildings and health.

They told the officials they don’t trust the state to make the building safe enough to re-occupy.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) Employees packed a temporary courtroom for an explanation of the state’s $9 million dollar plan to rehabilitate the sick building.

The court is one of the state agencies that relocated last spring in response to an unusually high rate of asthma and sarcoidosis in the building.

Sarcoidosis is a disease that attacks different body organs and can be life threatening. Its exact cause is unknown, but it’s often associated with environmental factors.

State health officials say their consultant has identified those factors in this case: they include a boiler system that was blowing soot back into the building, and microbes found in the air cooling system.

But Marie Woods, a Bennington County public defender, wasn’t convinced. Woods has lost her vision due to sarcoidosis.

(Wood) “Why would you put us back there and try to convince us that you’re going to clean the soot that causes sarcoidosis. So don’t tell me that microbes caused me to go blind, cause that’s not what happened and to put people back into the building to save money is ridiculous. Implode the damn thing, give us a new one, because that’s what we deserve.” (Applause)

(Keese) Vermont Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt said the department wouldn’t compromise workers’ safety for any reason.

(Moffatt)“We would not be sitting here before you with the information that we have and ask you to take a risk. We are telling you that with this remediation that you will be walking into a safe building.”

(Keese) Moffat said the fact that her department moved workers out was evidence of the state’s concern. But the workers said they’d complained for years before the state took action.

They also said state officials were still making it hard for those affected to get compensated for missed time and medical costs. Even after the legislature intervened to make the process easier, they said, most were still waiting.

Some of the 50 or so workers present said they might consider going back with a more expensive plan that would literally gut the building.

But many favored a new, downtown location that’s been identified by a task force set up by the legislature. Bennington County Senator Robert Hartwell has drafted legislation mandating such a move.

(Hartwell) “It ties into my continuing serious concern about whether we’re going to do enough to make this a good gamble and this is not the place to do it. I mean we simply have to have some real reassurance here that we’re going to capture this problem and we all acknowledge we don’t know where it came from.”

(Keese) Hartwell predicted that satisfactorily rehabilitating the complex would end up costing almost as much as a new building.

Money must be appropriated by the legislature for either solution to go forward.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.


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