An asbestos related lawsuit filed by a decades-long employee of Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California has many students, staff, and administration up in arms about the safety of several buildings on this pretty campus located just an hour north of San Francisco and nestled in the bucolic wine country of the Golden State.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Thomas R. Sargent, is an environmental health and safety inspector who claims he was forced to resign after consistently raising concerns about asbestos contamination on the campus, particularly in the HVAC systems of six different campus dwellings.
Sargent says no one in administration wanted to hear his concerns and his attorneys even allege that the university tampered with evidence prior to an onsite asbestos test ordered to disprove Sargent’s claims. It is also alleged that University President, Ruben Armiñana, may have deleted emails from Sargent in regards to his concerns about asbestos on campus.
The asbestos issue, including information about Sargent’s lawsuit, has spread through the campus population and has been addressed in the student newspaper, the Sonoma State Star. In a March 2016 issue, student reporters note that some professors refuse to use their offices due to the potential dangers of asbestos exposure, instead scheduling meetings with students in other places around campus. A student op-ed piece called busy Stevenson Hall, at the center of the asbestos concerns, “not a safe place on campus.”
In his lawsuit, Sargent states that his immediate supervisor, Craig Dawson, ignored warnings about asbestos for several years, specifically in regards to damaged asbestos floor tiles in Stevenson Hall. Asbestos was a regular component in floor tiles manufactured prior to the mid 1970s, and when the tiles are scratched by chairs and tables being shuffled around, asbestos dust is released into the air.
As a result of his fears, Sargent began to collect samples in several buildings, including Stevenson Hall, and was alarmed by the levels of asbestos in the air and on surfaces. As a result of bringing his concerns to the administration, the school did its own testing, with drastically different results.
Sargent questioned those results, was reprimanded, and then – says Sargent lawyers – things began to get dicey for their client, with constant hassle from the administration coming his way, which doubled when Sargent also began to cite lead based paint-related infractions.
Still, the university maintains there are no problems that will affect those who spend their time in Stevenson and the other structures in question. “Everything we have been doing is showing we don’t have any dangerous or unsafe conditions,” said Dawson, who is the campus director of environmental health and safety. He added that the university has done a “phenomenal job” in maintaining the floor and wall surfaces with wax, epoxy, paint and other coverings that help them avoid airborne release of asbestos fibers.
Nevertheless, the 600 faculty members at Sonoma State have jumped on the asbestos fear bandwagon as well, and rightfully so, notes Sargent and his lawyers. The faculty union has recently filed a grievance over the issue and has hired its own health and safety consultant to delve into the specifics of the problem.
They have reason to be concerned. A lecturer at the university’s School of Education, Elizabeth Galvez-Hardin, notes that she believes her 2010 diagnosis of lymphatic cancer was as a result of environmental toxins, though there is no specific evidence that asbestos can cause or contribute to this type of cancer.
This isn’t the first such incident involving college campuses and asbestos concerns or illegal asbestos activities. In the summer of 2015, Kilgore College in Texas laid off a number of maintenance workers after they complained about asbestos mishandling. One of them later filed asbestos related lawsuit against the college.