In summer 2012, the federal government examined personnel, inspected office space and ran tests at the Claussen Road complex. Within weeks, it concluded that a dozen workers had suffered chronic headaches, eye allergies and asthma symptoms from exposure to mold.
The building’s owner reportedly reacted with far less urgency. Documents show Hafeez Chaudhry’s efforts to fix non-functional thermostats, overflowing gutters and ventilation systems with no humidity control was “limited to nonresponsive” and “incomplete or ineffective.”
After the government initially cited a consolidated workforce for the agency’s decision to move out of the offices, the agency said in an e-mail last week that Chaudhry is to blame for its April departure. Taxpayers are locked into paying more than $476,000 annually in rent for an empty building that’s under lease until at least 2021.
In a phone interview Friday, Chaudhry denied those allegations.
“That is not true,” he said. “All of the maintenance issues brought to our attention were resolved.”
Patti Patterson, the Social Security agency’s regional communications director in Atlanta, said there were “significant and recurring maintenance problems” that Chaudhry failed to address during its three-year stay on Claussen Road, including the remediation of mold at its hearings office.
She said that because of health and safety concerns, and to make better use of space, personnel were moved to the Social Security office off Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway and other hearing locations. The agency also leases space in downtown Augusta’s SunTrust Bank Building.
“We relocated some employees with health concerns to the local field office before we permanently closed the hearings office,” she said.
Chaudhry said he worked with the General Service Administration, the lease holder for the government, and that it has not informed him of mold issues.
Saudia Muwwakkil, a public affairs officer for the GSA’s Sunbelt Region, said the opposite.
In an e-mail last week, Muwwakkil said the GSA was “not aware of any issues with water intrusion or high humidity” before signing the lease in October 2010, but that since then it has “engaged the building owner in resolving ongoing mold and maintenance issues at the Claussen Road facility as concerns were brought forward.”
Documents show that Social Security employees began reporting water-borne fungus problems almost immediately after moving in in November 2011. Before their arrival, the government completed a $644,000 renovation of the 37-year-old building. (The addition of new walls, finishes and duct work is costing taxpayers $92,000 a year above the cost of rent.)
Despite the complaints, the problems went unaddressed for nine months, until two representatives from Federal Occupational Health visited the building Aug. 20, 2012, to investigate complaints about water intrusion, indoor air quality and related health effects.
Federal health officials conducted evaluations with 17 of the facility’s 53 employees. Reported work-related symptoms included chronic headaches, dizziness, eye allergies, post-nasal drip, nasal allergy and asthma, and hives.
Overall, the group reported a high incidence of asthma and allergy problems, some of which were not present before or lessened when not in the building. Most sought medical attention with private physicians.
An indoor air quality survey conducted Oct. 26-27, 2012, found that during very heavy rainfall, water cascaded over the gutters and seeped into the building, sometimes pooling in the mailroom.
One main entry point for moisture was a 4-inch crack that extended 3 feet along the concrete floor from the outside perimeter. A musty odor was present around the opening, and a surface sample collected from the wall and wet carpet found spores typical of black mold.
Other discoveries included buckling and collapsing ceiling tiles from overflowing AC condensation; rotting and missing wood from outside walls; and traces of black mold in drywall, below leaky windows and inside blistering paint.
Two months after the survey, federal officials issued Chaudhry a “cure” letter that gave him a month to fix the building. Among the work ordered was evaluating wall cavities for mold, sealing the building’s foundation and roof, removing water-damaged materials and insulating dripping drain and refrigerant lines in the AC.
The Social Security agency moved 12 sick employees from the facility and isolated areas where health complaints were identified.
Chaudhry said he fixed all the facility’s problems, but federal documents show a different story.
In 2012, the government reported that Chaudhry sealed outside walls and installed a French drain to prevent leaks, but that he canceled an appointment for a heating and air conditioning business to examine the ventilation system.
Chaudhry denied that, saying the air conditioning is operational and that all maintenance requests were fixed.
In federal documents, the air-conditioning company’s owner reported that his staff insulated sections of drain lines, relocated thermostats and moved some duct work to enhance comfort and prevent problems, but the modifications apparently were not up to federal code.
A letter from Federal Occupational Health last September said there was a “remarkable” increase – between 400 and 600 percent – in airborne fungal spores in two rooms near the reception window.
Inspectors determined that both rooms were serviced by the same ventilation system, which they said “suggests something anomalous,” such as inadequate filtration of outside air or a reservoir somewhere in carpet, walls, or duct work.
Federal health officials recommended the GSA further investigate the ventilation system and retest certain areas for mold. Depending on the results, they said that “it may be necessary to accelerate the relocation process currently underway” for the Social Security office.
The GSA said it is re-evaluating its Augusta lease portfolio. Chaudhry said the group does a very good job at managing leases and that he hopes to continue to work with them.
“The building has no mold,” he said. “But I will test again.”