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UCC Postpones Housing Project After JPR Inquiry Into Toxic Lead Dust

Michael Sullivan | The News-Review
Contractors repaint the former Roseburg National Guard armory, which is slated to be used as student housing for Umpqua Community College.

Umpqua Community College administrators say they’re postponing the move-in date for students into a newly renovated student housing building due to the possible presence of toxic lead dust.

The college intends to use a former National Guard armory in Roseburg for student housing. The armory had an indoor firing range in its basement until the city of Roseburg sold the building to a private owner — Sweetwater Trust — in 1977. After a Jefferson Public Radio inquiry into the possible presence of toxic lead dust, UCC President Debra Thatcher announced the college is indefinitely postponing students’ move-in date until further testing is conducted. Administrators originally planned to have students move in as early as October 15.

Investigations by The Oregonian and The Seattle Times in 2016 show that indoor shooting ranges can accumulate toxic levels of lead dust; each time a gun is fired, microscopic lead particles from the bullet burst into the air. That dust can get trapped in its ventilation system and ductwork and spread throughout a building over time. The issue has impacted current and former armories with indoor firing ranges across the country.

Lead exposure can cause irreversible physical and mental damage to a person’s body, especially to infants, whose brains are still developing. The former Roseburg armory has not been tested for lead dust, reports The News-Review.

Credit Michael Sullivan | The News-Review

UCC signed a three-year lease contract with Sweetwater Trust — which owns the building now known as the Flegel Center — so it could sublease its rooms to students in its athletics department. Athletic Director Craig Jackson told The News-Review he hopes this project will make up for a shortage of rentals in the area. He says students would pay $450 a month in rent, which would bring $750,000 of income to the college.

Jackson first told the newspaper and JPR that the building’s property management company, Faith Construction, conducted a hazardous materials test on the building and the results came out clean. Upon review of those test results, JPR found that no tests were taken specifically for lead dust. The contractor tested samples for asbestos and lead paint. One of those paint samples showed toxic levels of lead.

JPR asked Faith Construction if its staff knew of the former firing range in the building and if it would conduct additional testing for lead dust. Its staff said they have completed their legal obligation and that the building is up to code.

“We were unaware of the issue of lead in Oregon armories,” Thatcher wrote in an email after JPR brought the issue to the college president and board. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

Thatcher said she expects the building’s owner to conduct additional testing.

“In order to feel confident that our students are safe, we will do testing if the owner does not or if we have reason to believe further testing (beyond that of the owner) is needed,” Thatcher wrote.

If Faith Construction moves forward with additional tests, Thatcher says the college won’t have those results on file and they will therefore not become a public record.

No amount of lead exposure is considered safe. Still, it crops up in many industrial materials and in the earth itself, so federal and local regulators allow for a certain percentage of it to occur in samples from commercial and residential buildings.  

While lead exposure is more dangerous to infants and pregnant women, adults who have worked in indoor shooting ranges have experienced substantial damage to their bodies due to regular lead dust exposure.

“In adults, lead in high levels can cause symptoms such as what we would call distal neuropathy, meaning that the hands and the feet can have numbness, or lack of nerve function, causing them to not perform as you would expect them to,” Perry Cabot of the Multnomah County Environmental Health department says. Cabot has worked closely with families concerned about lead exposure.

The Flegel Center hasn’t been an armory since 1977. It has since been a children’s gymnastics studio, a corporate building with office space, an events center, and a basketball court. Although it’s been decades since the building had an indoor firing range, Cabot says it’s safer to conduct additional tests.

“Rather than speculate, it's best to gather some information,” Cabot says. “And that could just be done with a handful of wipe samples on surfaces in that area to determine whether or not we're still dealing with residual contamination. It's just best to know more.”

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