The county will hire an inspector to evaluate air quality in the Piatt County Courthouse after hearing complaints from building employees at a crowded building and grounds committee meeting on April 3.
“It’s an irritant that burns my throat, burns my eyes, makes me so sleepy that when I go home at night I just want to lay on the couch and sleep,” said Circuit Clerk employee Maggie Warren.
Stale water leaking from the building’s 1980s era heating system has made for soaked insulation, stained ceiling tile and walls, and foul odors several times since 2017. The problem has been pegged to deteriorating plugs that spring leaks, usually above suspended ceiling tiles. In one case it caused some of those tiles to collapse in a side room of a judge’s office.
About half of the 30 plugs have been replaced, with the remainder slated to be swapped out with non-corrosive ones when the heating season finally concludes.
Water used in the system will also be flushed when the heating portion of the system is not online, said Maintenance Supervisor Doug Winder, who added that some of the plugs are proving difficult to remove due to remote locations where there is not enough room to get the proper tools in place.
“We’re trying as many things as we can with this. I’m taking it very seriously,” he said, noting he had worked on it as recently as the day before the meeting. “But I can’t drain it during the heating season.”
That wasn’t enough for about 20 employees present at the meeting, including Circuit Clerk’s Office employee Alicia Winder, who noted she had never claimed more than three days of sick time in any of her 45 years of working in the courthouse.
Until the fiscal year that began last December.
“This year alone, I have had to use almost all of my days, and four times since December I have had relapses. I have a sinus condition, yes, but never like this, and I’ve never had pneumonia before,” said Mrs. Winder, adding she had recently been diagnosed with pneumonia.
Court Reporter Jamie Mumm said she also has (fungal) pneumonia, and noted that leaks have stained carpet in some offices as well.
There was concern expressed about the propylene glycol used in the system to keep water from freezing. Mr. Winder said that, while the substance is considered safe, it can be “an irritant to some people.”
“The Illinois State Health Department confirmed it’s not a safety issue,” he added. “I’m aware of it. I know it causes issues. I had my guys over here yesterday (April 2). I said ‘I want you to go through every crawl space, I want you to follow the pipes.’ They were in crawl spaces, underneath steps, in the basement in vault areas, trying to find any other problems. So we are working on it.”
Judge Hugh Finson was still concerned. He read from a safety sheet on propylene glycol that recommends “avoiding discharge in the drains, water courses or under the ground. Avoid prolonged exposure. Use care in handling and storage. Wear safety glasses with side shields or goggles,” he said, noting other protective measures that include the wearing of protective clothing and careful hygiene after handling.
“It is disturbing,” he added.
Mr. Winder noted that propylene glycol can be discharged into local drains as long as the county notifies the city water department prior to it happening so that they can take proper precautions.
“I’m not taking this lightly. I’m on it. We’ve been working on it a long time,” he added. “Unfortunately, I can’t drain it while we’re in heating season, because we may have pipes freezing.”
Maintenance staff confirmed after prior leaks that water had not been completely flushed from the courthouse heating system in several years, one reason it causes odors when it escapes the pipes.
The courthouse dates to 1903, but the current HVAC system was installed in the 1980s, according to employees present at the meeting. At that point plugs were installed in some areas to halt the flow of water in unused areas of the new system.
Areas experiencing leaks in the last year and a half have included the county clerk, state’s attorney, circuit clerk and probation offices, along with the judge’s room. But even areas unaffected by leaks can end up with smells in their offices.
Sheriff David Hunt, who has oversight over the building, suggested an inspection be done, to which building and grounds committee members agreed. The committee also authorized necessary cleanup if found necessary.
“In the meantime, if we have another leak, judge you are obviously in charge of the courtroom and I think you have the right to send (Mumm) out if she needs,” said the sheriff.
“Or close the court,” responded Finson, to which Hunt agreed.
“You all have the right to close all your own offices,” added Hunt, who has the right to close the entire courthouse, but only in consultation with the presiding judge (Finson) and the Illinois Supreme Court. That process resulted in a two-day closure due to extreme cold in January.