Nearly 100 Montana Department of Environmental Quality workers were sent home on paid leave Monday after inspections found elevated levels of lead in one of the department’s own buildings.
“The irony is not lost on us,” said DEQ Director Tracy Stone-Manning said regarding contaminants in Helena’s old armory at the north end of Last Chance Gulch, where DEQ now houses its division responsible for environmental cleanup.
Officials said levels of lead particulate were found in dust above the ceiling tiles that are 40 times what the federal government recommends for residential housing units. The findings were part of more than a year-long examination of the structure. A test of the building’s air quality was conducted over the weekend and results from that should be available Thursday.
“I need to stress that we are using an abundance of caution and we are now asking additional questions,” Stone-Manning said. “Is that lead in the air that the employees have been breathing? Is that lead in our employees’ bodies?”
Stone-Manning said the 98 employees will be on leave through Wednesday while the Department of Administration finds temporary work space for them. DEQ said it is unclear how long the building will be closed, but probably for a few weeks to a few months. The state is suggesting the employees get their blood tested, which will be offered to them for free.
The armory building was built in the 1942 for the National Guard, Department of Administration Director Sheila Hogan said. Until 1974, the building contained an indoor firing range used by the guard. It then was used as storage until 1994, when the firing range was closed and lead remediation efforts took place. DEQ moved into the building in 2002 after the Department of Military Affairs moved to Fort Harrison.
The building’s employees primarily work in DEQ’s remediation division. David Bowers is a project manager in the state superfund section of that division. He has been working in the old armory since DEQ moved in in 2002 and said from the beginning employees were citing respiratory problems and skin irritation. Over the years, Bowers said the department started looking into the building’s history.
“Being scientists and inquisitive people, we starting researching and going ‘you know what, they have a lot of problems with indoor firing ranges,’” he said.
Bowers worked on the team that has been conducting the building test since the project began in August of 2012. He said he believes the type of lead found in the building comes from bullet primer caps.
In addition to more lead testing, the department will also be testing the building for other contaminants like mold, fiberglass and asbestos.