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Planned Student Housing Building Contains Toxic Dust, But UCC Won't Provide Test Results

Michael Sullivan | The News-Review

Umpqua Community College officials say there are low-levels of toxic lead dust in a former National Guard armory that is slated to become student housing.

However, they say they can't provide the lead test results to the public because the college doesn't have those results on file.

The former Roseburg armory, now known as the Flegel Center, had an indoor shooting range in its basement until the late 1970s. Numerous studies, as well as investigations by The Oregonian/OregonLive and The Seattle Times, show that indoor firing ranges often collect toxic levels of lead dust.

Lead exposure can cause irreversible physical and mental damage, especially to infants, whose brains are still developing. No amount of lead exposure is considered safe. Even adults who have worked in indoor firing ranges have experienced numbness in their hands and fingers, memory loss, and headaches due to lead poisoning.

UCC spokeswoman Tiffany Coleman says the college doesn’t own the Flegel Center — it's leasing it from Sweetwater Trust — so it isn’t the owner of the test results. The building’s property management company, Faith Construction, hired a contractor to conduct the lead testing. That company didn’t respond to Jefferson Public Radio’s request for test results.

JPR made a public records request to UCC for all emails sent to college officials that contain the lead test results. Coleman said no one at UCC received the results by email. When asked if anyone at UCC saw the test results, Coleman didn’t respond. UCC President Debra Thatcher wasn’t available for comment.

“We do not have the results,” Coleman told the Roseburg News-Review. “UCC was notified, by the owner, of the results. We chose to communicate this information on our behalf — not the owner’s — as part of our ongoing effort to be transparent.”

UCC intends to sublease the former armory to 30 students in its athletics department and charge each of them $450 a month in rent. The college initially planned to have them move into the building on Oct. 15.

Earlier this month, JPR asked college officials if it had been tested for toxic lead dust. Following JPR’s inquiry, Thatcher announced the college would postpone students’ move-in date until testing had been conducted.

In a press release dated Oct. 15, the college announced that new results showed low levels of lead dust in two storage rooms on the first floor. The release didn’t provide information about how much lead dust was discovered in those rooms, or which areas had been swabbed for possible dust.

In the release, the college says it’s not responsible for the testing or abatement of lead dust in the building, since it doesn’t own the building.

Instead, Faith Construction will hire contractors to remove  the lead dust, then retest after that construction is completed.

Lead dust collects in shooting ranges because bullets are usually made of lead. Each time a gun is fired indoors, microscopic lead particles from the bullet burst into the air. That dust can get trapped in ventilation systems and ductwork and spread throughout a building over time. Current and former armories across the country that have indoor firing ranges have tested positive for toxic levels of lead dust.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.