Three people associated with the construction of the Appalachian Regional Exposition Center told the Wythe County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that they blame ongoing health issues on fungi in the soil at the center.
“Someone needs to be held accountable,” construction worker Dean Coe told supervisors.
Coe said after the meeting that problems began in the fall of 2018 after heavy rains. He said he walked into the center one day to find a white substance inches deep covering the floor. He said workers experienced health and respiratory problems from then on.
James Brown said he has suffered seizures and breathing problems since working at the center.
“I can’t breathe; I can’t play with my kids,” he said, adding that doctors are treating the ailments like pneumonia or the flu, “but it doesn’t respond.”
The 40-year-old Brown worked for Coe, who subcontracted work for RGM Erectors of Max Meadows, the company the county hired to build the facility.
One speaker, Tonya Remines, spoke on behalf of her husband, Bobby, 55, who died in October.
Remines on Tuesday held the hand of her young granddaughter and told supervisors that her husband worked putting up lights in the APEX Center. She said her husband, who was disabled and had rheumatoid arthritis, started at the center in the spring and by October 2018 had starting suffering from respiratory, stomach and mobility issues.
“He just went downhill because of the mold,” she said.
A year later, her husband died, leaving her no money for living expenses. She cares for their two grandchildren.
“It’s because he worked at the Expo Center,” she said. “Bobby is gone and here I am, and they are suffering because of that mold. After he went to work out there, it was over with.”
After the meeting, Coe, Brown and another worker, Luther Pruitt of Radford, talked with the Wytheville Enterprise about working at the center and their health problems.
Coe, who lives in Marion, said he knows of 14 men who worked at the center who have gotten sick.
“It got to the point where we couldn’t work because my men were all getting sick on me,” he said. “It’s like a fast-growing bacteria; you could watch it move. And all they did is scrape it off.”
The men said they continued to work at the center because officials on site told them soil tests showed the mold was wasn’t harmful.
“They kept telling us it was safe,” Brown said.
County Administrator Stephen Bear said that after complaints from workers, the Virginia Occupational Safety and Health office tested the soil and deemed that no additional analysis or testing was required.
The Virginia Department of Health is conducting an investigation into the matter.
Bear said laboratory analysis revealed the presence of two common fungi (mold) - Penicllium chrysogenum and Rhizopus stolonifera.
“Both of the fungi are very common in any natural environment and it is believed the shade of the event center roof over the soil (soil was excavated and brought in from the local area) allowed the fungi to grow at a rapid pace,” Bear said, adding that supervisors and members of the APEX Authority, the group that manages the facility, were made aware of the testing and results.
Bear said additional sand was brought into the arena to improve the soil conditions after the complaints. He said that officials also commenced with more frequent turning and tilling of the soil to help stop mold growth.
Ron Graham, health compliance director for the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, confirmed that soil samples were tested and no citations were issued as a result of the mold investigation. He said molds and fungi occur naturally and there are no legal standards outlining a point where they become dangerous.
Coe worked at the center through most of 2018; the center opened in January 2019. During that time, he said he was hospitalized in intensive care five times, nearly dying once. He said he has visited doctors more than 200 times and lab tests have identified three types of fungi in his lungs. One is a rare fungus, he said.
The 77-year-old said while working at the center that he would start gagging and coughing up a white, shrimp-shaped material with long, white, hairy tails.
Pruitt, 68, said he had mild respiratory problems before he started working at the center, but they got much worse while he worked there. He has been hospitalized 13 times in the past year. He estimates his medical bills at more than a half-million dollars. Pruitt was hospitalized again on Thursday.
The men described the mold as a white, sticky substance that turned translucent when held.
Pruitt said he used two inhalers when he started to work at the center. Dean said he did not use inhalers when he started. Now, both men use five inhalers and take breathing treatments with nebulizers. Pruitt also uses oxygen.
The men said they have runny noses and have suffered from sores that start on their feet and work their way up their bodies.
“The further up the body they went, the worse they got,” Coe said.
“We need help,” Pruitt said. “This is killing me.”
Supervisor Chairman Brian Vaught said he learned about the soil testing in July 2019, as did Supervisor Ryan Lawson. Supervisor Gene Horney said he remembers being told about it several months ago but could not give a precise time. All three supervisors responded to emails sent to them from the Wytheville Enterprise. The fourth supervisor on the board during the APEX Center construction, Coy McRoberts, did not answer an email.
Vaught said supervisors were aware that soil at the center was tested in July 2019. The tests came back saying the two types of mold present was nothing out of the ordinary.
“That is the only thing I received,” he said. “We didn’t get specifics about these health problems and people dying. The other night is the first details we heard of that.”
The county is awaiting Health Department test results.
“At this point, my suggestion would be that regardless of what comes back from the health department, whether it’s (mold, fungi) there or not, we get an independent company to do it for transparency’s sake and to be on the safe side,” Vaught said. “I don’t know about the claims made the other night – you hate to say you don’t believe somebody, and you hate to say you believe every word of it.”
Lawson said she heard in July that a worker at the center made a complaint about mold.
“Mr. Bear let us know that an inspection was done and the health department was made aware,” she said in an email. “He told us that what came back was a common … mold. Since then, I have not heard of any issues regarding the mold until Tuesday’s meeting when citizens made the complaints.
“I can assure you that I would never allow my nephews to step foot on that soil, as they did during the motor cross event, if I had ANY concerns for their safety, OR the safety of any individual there,” she wrote. “The APEX authority is safe and healthy, the three staff members are safe and healthy, and we have had no other complaints. I am, however, going to take these new complaints/accusations very serious just to be safe. I will request additional testing to take place at this point.”
Horney agreed that the soil needs to be tested again to assure the public and county leaders that it is safe, adding that the three center employees have not had any health problems.
The APEX staff was hired after the center opened.
Vaught and other officials stressed that the complaints concern the construction period only, not since the center opened.
“After the other night, we have to do our due diligence, regardless of the test results and pay an independent company to test and deal with whatever it is,” Vaught said. “Hopefully everything will work out but if not, we will deal with it as it comes.”
County Administrator Bear said the county has been communicating with the Virginia Department of Health concerning complaints received about the APEX Center.
“Wythe County and the APEX Authority will continue to work with the Virginia Department of Health to maintain a safe and healthy facility for its employees, event participants, and spectators,” he said.
To reach Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 35, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.