Courthouse staff fear asbestos and mould issues

by Alicia McCutcheon

GORE BAY—With the discovery of mould and asbestos at the Gore Bay courthouse, court has been adjourned to a new location and employee tensions are running high.

Monday afternoon saw a meeting called at Gordon’s Lodge between the Ministry of the Attorney General, Ministry of Labour and the employees of the Gore Bay courthouse, including the land registry office.

Mindemoya attorney Brad Middleton contacted The Expositor following the meeting.

“They (Ministry of the Attorney General) said their foremost concern was for the safety of the employees and for transparency, yet this only happened after the Ministry of Labour was contacted,” he said. “User groups were not told of the problem until the Ministry of Labour stepped in and I’m doubtful the Attorney General would have said anything otherwise.”

Reports started floating around Manitoulin that after a renovation of the second floor courtroom was started by Infrastructure Ontario on behalf of the Ministry of the Attorney General, employees began to complain of rashes, welts and running noses.

“As a result of health concerns expressed by staff during the project, an environmental occupational health consultant was engaged,” Brendan Crawley, media relations person for the ministry explained in an email. “The consultant has indicated there is no significant health risk.”

“Out of an abundance of caution, staff and services in the Gore Bay courthouse have been temporarily relocated as work is undertaken to address air quality issues,” he continued, noting the move to the Gore Bay town office. “Staff will be kept out of the building until we have confirmation the air quality is safe and the building can be reoccupied. Remediation of mould and asbestos in the courthouse is complete and cleaning is underway.”

Jeff Giffen of Infrastructure Ontario told The Expositor that the mould and asbestos were identified in the tiles and the ceiling and that this was the first major renovation since 1993 when the addition was built.

Mr. Middleton noted that the tone of the meeting was “heated” and “confrontational.” He said some of the court workers told tales of health issues since they first began to work in the courthouse a number of years earlier.

“These are very legitimate concerns,” he said. “I would even call this a quasi cover up. They’re masquerading under a façade of concern about people’s health.”

One question Mr. Middleton said he was interested in knowing the answer to was whether the staff would have been retaliated against had they spoken up. “I understand they (court employees) were under a gag order.”

The afternoon meeting was just the first of the day, with another following at 5 pm, again at Gordon’s Lodge.

“I’m concerned about this meeting with the ministry’s paid doctor, consultants and someone from the lab—it’s like having an expert witness at trial, they’re paid to speak on behalf of the ministry,” Mr. Middleton added.

He noted that the courthouse files were cleaned over the weekend, but staff said at the meeting that while each paper was cleaned meticulously, the duct work and vent systems had not been cleaned and nor was there a promise it would be.

“It’s turned the court system upside down,” Mr. Middleton said, noting that fellow lawyer and federal Crown attorney Joe Chapman “sure raked them over the coals.”

“The thing that was really disturbing to me was there were 12 bureaucrats from off-Island—what a waste of money,” Mr. Chapman said. “They confirmed the presence of mould, but said they always knew there was asbestos in the building (due to its age).”

“The problem that we all have is why did they withhold the information for two weeks?” he continued.

According to Mr. Chapman, employees alerted the Ministry of Labour after the strange symptoms began cropping up during the renovation. “It was a little more than a coincidence people were getting sick. They started testing as far back as November 10 so they obviously knew something was there. Why didn’t they move people then?”

“There was a lack of information and consideration from the bureaucrats,” he added.

Mr. Chapman said he felt the courthouse employees are distrustful now, perhaps only trusting of the Ministry of Labour.

“They have to address the bigger issue,” the lawyer continued vehemently. “It’s a mould infested hell hole that’s causing people to break out. It’s 2011 and nobody has to work in that kind of environment anymore. No bureaucrat from Toronto should be deciding who should work in what conditions, especially when it comes to the prisoners who can’t leave.”

In a conversation with Community Services Officer Al Boyd last week, he explained that prisoners facing trial or court appearances were currently being housed at the Gore Bay Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) station rather than at the court house until the issue is resolved.

“They didn’t even bother to tell the lawyers where court is being held—there’s no court strategy whatsoever. They could have at least emailed or called so we can let our clients know where to go,” Mr. Chapman continued. “The building itself is an absolute joke. You can’t go from the courtroom to the court office without going outside and there are so many sets of stairs to get there. During the last redesign, if you weighed over 120 pounds you couldn’t fit into the witness box and if you were handicapped, forget it.”