Seawanhaka Investigation: Multiple Health and Safety Hazards On Campus
Frustration grows as health hazards on campus continue to mount.
By: OSCAR FOCK / NEWS EDITOR
As students arrived back to campus on Sept. 7 for the first day of classes, everything appeared the same as before the summer. For those arriving through the revolving door of the Metcalfe building, however, taped to the window glass were a trio of notes, announcing the ongoing process of asbestos abatement.
LIU states on its website that the school is “committed to maintaining exceptional and safe facilities.” Yet, multiple possible health hazards, like asbestos, mold and unreliable heating continue to put students at risk, a Seawanhaka investigation found.
Testimonies from students and documents obtained by Seawanhaka also show that LIU’s maintenance practices in many cases are lagging, inadequate and sometimes potentially illegal.
The removal of asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral fiber, as well as LIU’s handling of the process, has been surrounded by labor issues and questions about safety.
As the school prepared to begin renovations of the old Paramount Theater in 2018, traces of asbestos were found on the roof and in the window putty on almost every floor of the Metcalfe building.
When the renovation of the Paramount theater was halted soon after breaking ground in 2018, the asbestos abatement was delayed until the spring of 2022.
Asbestos was widely used in construction until the 1980s for its durability and heat-resistant qualities, and while it was partially banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1989, it still exists in many older buildings across the U.S.
Any amount of asbestos is unhealthy, but the risk of getting sick increases with the amount one is exposed to. If inhaled, it settles in the lungs which can lead to diseases like lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
Around 90,000 people globally die yearly from asbestos-related diseases, including 37,000 in the U.S. alone. Asbestos has a long latency period, meaning that symptoms of diseases caused by the fibers can show up long after exposure.
The abatement process has continued into the fall semester, and while it is uncertain what risk it poses to students who have classes in the Metcalfe building, it has some students worried.
“It’s kind of concerning it’s there,” said Rebecca Horowitz, a junior in the nursing program.
“Because where else could it be?” Ashley Figueroa, also a junior in the nursing program, added.
This summer, the abatement project also sparked outrage among labor union members, who gathered outside the Brooklyn campus with a giant, inflatable rat, protesting against one of the contractors working on the site.
In 2018, as LIU began the procurement for a contractor to remove the asbestos, the school administration sent a letter to Local 78, a branch of the Laborer’s International Union of North America which represents asbestos, lead and hazardous waste handlers in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey. The letter detailed the requirements for any contractor hoping to take on the project, which included that the contractor must be authorized by the union.
“Bidders who fail to meet these requirements will have their bid voided,” the letter states, signed by Michael Ng, project manager for the abatement project and environmental health and safety manager on the Brooklyn campus.
Yet, in the summer of this year, at least one of the contractors, Incinia Contracting Inc., was not authorized by Local 78.
A series of allegations have been made against the company, including not paying their workers proper wages, and in the past allowing persons into the workplace without proper protective equipment and starting abatement before the workplace was appropriately prepared.
Roy Fergus, Vice President of facilities at LIU for five years, signs off on all capital construction projects, including the renovations in the Metcalfe building. When choosing between contractors, the administration goes with the cheapest, appropriately licensed option, he said.
Fergus says he is not aware of any letters sent to the union, but explains that the decision to use Incinia Contracting Inc. as the abatement contractor wasn’t LIU’s, but rather the company contracted by LIU to renovate the Paramount Theater.
“They’re not under our control,” he asserted.
The abatement is expected to be completed by the end of February 2023.
This is not the first time concerns have arisen from the maintenance of the buildings on the Brooklyn campus. For years, students have also coexisted with poorly maintained classrooms and an aging residence hall.
In a poll conducted outside Conolly Hall on Oct. 19 — where the temperature the night before had dropped to 48 degrees — 11 of 15 students said that either they had issues with their dorm room, or they knew someone who had.
One of the students asked, freshman Sidney Whitehead, explained that she had no heating in her room.
“They were supposed to turn [the heat] on,” she said. “My room still has no heat.”
To stave off the cold, Whitehead has resorted to other solutions.
“I just sleep under two blankets, I put a blanket underneath my comforter sheet,” she said.
Building owners are legally required to maintain an inside temperature of at least 62 degrees at night during “heat season,” which spans from Oct. 1 to May 31. If not, penalties can reach up to $500 for the first day a violation occurs, and then up to $1,000 per day after that.
The heating problems have also made some residents of Conolly Hall ill. A student, who requested to be anonymous, emailed the administration on Oct. 3, because her cold dorm room had made her ill. An upper staff member promised to get back in touch with the student, but three weeks later, the student still had not heard back.
The struggle to get the administration to act on problems with Conolly Hall goes beyond heating.
At the beginning of the 2021 fall semester, the same student and her roommate found mold in their bathroom. At the time, they shared a quad standard with two other students, a room that in 2022 cost $5,877 per student. They put in multiple work orders and the maintenance staff came and cleaned the mold, but it kept growing back.
On Sept. 28, 2021, the two students reported the issue to the New York City Department of Housing and Preservation Development.
Two days later, the case was resolved, after LIU verified to the department that the mold had been addressed.
But the mold was still there. The two students made sure that one of them was always in the room, in case someone came to fix it. No one ever did.
The students put in another work order, and the mold was cleaned again. This process was repeated over the course of the fall semester. But the mold kept returning in the same spot, on a sagging ceiling above the shower.
Two times, the moldy part of the bathroom ceiling was cleaned, re-plastered and re-painted. Despite that, the bulge in the ceiling remained, and in January 2022, the paint cracked, revealing underneath, the largest patch of mold yet.
It was never uncovered what caused the mold to grow back.
“We have a very focused program that addresses any evidence of mold, as soon as it's identified. Our custodial staff, they're trained, and they have the products that address it,” Fergus said.
The students complained to the school that the vent in the bathroom wasn’t working properly, and had mold growing inside it. It was cleaned out once, but the mold came back and was never addressed again.
According to the Asthma-Free Housing Act from 2018, a building owner has a responsibility to investigate and correct an underlying issue that causes or may cause mold.
“When living in Conolly in general I always seemed to have a cough. I’m not sure if that was from the mold or something else but living at home and Fulton I’ve never had that issue,” said one of the students with mold in their bathroom.
The problems with the campus buildings are widespread, according to students. In a poll conducted by Seawanhaka on Instagram, 92 percent of those responding said that they had noticed issues with the buildings on campus, citing cockroaches in the Humanities building, as well as water leaks, peeling paint and mold in Conolly Hall.
When a structural issue arises in Conolly Hall, students are encouraged by LIU to make service requests by using QR codes taped to the walls throughout the dorm. Once scanned, students are sent to a form where they report the issue. The system was implemented in April 2018, and was designed to “improve response time from maintenance.” Yet, residents question the effectiveness of the system.
“We had a bunch of outgoing calls, three to four outgoing work orders all put in place,” sophomore Michael Thompson said.
Thompson, who shares a double suite that costs him $5,616 per semester, lived the first two weeks of the 2022 fall semester without a working toilet.
“We resorted to finding other friends either on the same floor or around the area that had a bathroom and we just borrowed that for the time being,” he continued.
Thompson said that the situation was frustrating, adding that he feels that there is a lack of communication from the school administration.
“I think there's just a very large sense of ignorance from the school side and the actual workers here that are the management of everything and they're not really connected with what's actually going on,” he said.
While the health hazards continue to mount on the Brooklyn campus, LIU maintains that they care about their students.
“Health and safety is the most important responsibility we have and we take it very seriously. I always encourage students to reach out to me directly if they have any concerns that they would like to discuss,” Michael Berthel, Vice President for student affairs, wrote in an email to Seawanhaka.
Yet, the maintenance of the Brooklyn campus has been a concern of students for years.
“In my experience, maintenance never really took a lot of the work orders seriously,” said Jennifer Roback, an LIU alumna who graduated in 2021. During Roback’s time in Conolly Hall, she had brown water coming out of her sinks.
With the cost for room and board for on-campus students estimated to be $16,876 for the 2022-2023 school year, Roback questions where the money went.
“What did I actually pay for?” Roback said. “Because it felt like a lot of my money wasn't actually going toward keeping up campus and accommodations.”