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SDSU Put Students, Faculty In Harm’s Way When Construction Project Went Awry, Records Show

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Faced with a deadline to finish $2.5 million in renovations to a San Diego State University building or risk losing most of the funds, campus officials made a series of decisions that threatened the health of students, faculty and staff.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego State University faced a public relations nightmare this spring when construction on a campus building sickened students and faculty. New documents obtained by new sores. Show money played a big role in why that happened. I knew source reporter Bella Ross has the story.

Speaker 2: 00:17 I had started a workout regimen. I'm seeing a trainer every Tuesday and Thursday and so that's nice.

Speaker 1: 00:23 July Nathan Rodriguez began taking time out of his day as an assistant professor of media studies at SCSU to go to the gym. It was paying off, he said until,

Speaker 2: 00:32 I think it was like mid February when I started noticing that things were going awry in my, um, physical condition in terms of like, have you breathing difficulty breathing headaches, um, wheezing. Yeah.

Speaker 1: 00:44 And SCSU roof construction project began during winter break and bled into the new semester and let off dangerous chemical vapors in the building where Rodriguez and others worked. Staff and students spent six weeks in the professional studies and fine arts building, breathing the noxious fumes. They suffered headaches, nausea, and nosebleeds. As a result, more than two dozen people filed health reports in March. University officials close the building, emails and reports obtained by new source. Now show a funding deadline was what prompted SCSU to rush the project and put the faculty and students at risk. I mean, good for me. It started kind of have each of you say your name, just spell it for us. I knew sorts sat down with three university officials after reviewing the documents to understand more about the construction debacle.

Speaker 3: 01:31 Cool. Have we waited for the summer to, to start some of this? Some of the funding wouldn't have happened.

Speaker 1: 01:36 Eric Hanson is an s CSU associate vice president. He said there was an approaching deadline to spend money on the buildings repairs. So when the project faced delays last summer, officials try to complete the work over the short winter break instead of waiting until the following summer.

Speaker 3: 01:50 I would not say that the planning per se was um, the failure.

Speaker 1: 01:54 Here's the thing though. A month after we sat down with Hanson and SCSU spokeswoman told us the deadline was actually a year later than officials originally thought the rush and resulting sicknesses could have been avoided. Instead, students continued at to attend classes in the building. Large fans were set up to reduce the odors, but the vapors remained. CSU has said repeatedly the vapors were not harmful, but air monitoring reports obtained by INU source show levels were barely permissible under federal standards and an excess of standards established by other health organizations.

Speaker 4: 02:30 I mean is it's kind of predictable that people would be experiencing symptoms from those exposures.

Speaker 1: 02:36 So last month for n has a doctor and occupational and environmental health and teaches at Texas state university. She told I need a source of April. Issues, could easily have been predicted and prevented.

Speaker 4: 02:47 No, this is the exact, like this could be a case study. It's not just one thing that went wrong. It's like a cascade of problems.

Speaker 1: 02:54 This cascade went well beyond the walls of the polluted building. Students. Faculty complained that campus wide communications about the health threat fell short their frustrations or re-upped it out a form in April about the project. He was Rodriguez again,

Speaker 3: 03:08 he had been sick. And I want to know why information has not been communicated to people earlier.

Speaker 1: 03:14 After listening to criticism for more than an hour university president Adela Delatorre stood up, she announced the abrupt decision to keep the building closed. But I am not going to have the faculty and staff at San Diego state or the students placed at risk Butoh phenol. But some students and faculty say they still feel kept in the dark. Here's SCSU student Brandon limb in July.

Speaker 3: 03:38 Even now, you know, it's summertime, it's been half a year since the building close and we're still kind of searching for answers.

Speaker 1: 03:46 An SCSU spokeswoman said the university plants spent another $12 million on the renovations to the building, including a new roof that may put the building out of regular use for up to two years. One lesson university officials say they have learned from this is to improve their communications.

Speaker 3: 04:04 I think if we knew what we know now, um, notifying folks earlier would've been something we would've done.

Speaker 1: 04:11 KPBS I'm a new source reporter, Bell Ross for a look at the full investigation and all the incident reports filed by building occupants go to, I knew source.org I knew source is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS.

Speaker 5: 04:30 Uh.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.