On-the-Job Training

A quick quiz:
Of the following prospective tenants, which might a landlord be most likely to select?

1. A gang of unemployed teenage crack addicts
2. A cadre of Maoist rebels
3. A team of alert environmental regulators

If you're William I. Donner, the answer might not be at all clear-cut. Donner and his partners own a fourteen-story building at 33 SW Second Avenue in downtown Miami. This past March they rented twelve floors of the building to the Metro-Dade Department of Environmental Regulation (DERM), the county agency that regulates and manages activities that affect the environment. Since then the landlord has been pelted by a steady hail of complaints about the property, many concerning environmental health and safety.

"I think that the building's owner is of the opinion that we overreact," says Donna Fries, the safety, training, and quality-assurance officer for the 420-member department. "He's voiced that opinion. But I think it's just that we're better educated than previous tenants."

The grumbling began even before DERM staffers packed their boxes and moved from their old quarters in the Metro-Dade Government Center, offices that commanded panoramic vistas of Greater Miami and Biscayne Bay. The move promised to yield increased office space for the county agency, which is funded by federal and state grants, as well as by monies from other sources including operating permits, fees for service, and environmental fines. But moves are always a pain, and besides, the new view was to be of I-95 and assorted, decidedly nonscenic, off-ramps.

But once the DERMers began settling in, the gripes graduated from aesthetics to matters of the environment -- the immediate environment. First staffers noticed mice romping around the new, specially renovated offices. The pest problem was minor, according to staffer Isaac Sznol, who spotted one of the rodents, and the mice seemed to disappear after the landlord hired an extermination crew.

Soon after, a more dire situation was uncovered. In-house testing revealed unacceptably high levels of lead in the water that flowed from the office's dozen drinking fountains. That glitch is now being dealt with. Signs posted above every fountain warn, "FLUSHING: PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB," but Donna Fries reports that the department is installing filters at each fountain, and that two of the department's twelve floors have already been made safe for sipping. The cost of the filters: $100 apiece, not counting labor for installation.

Then came the paint scare. Worried that flakes of peeling paint might contain lead, DERM hired an outside consultant to test samples taken from throughout the building. Fortunately, only one sample contained "slightly elevated" lead levels, according to Fries. Testing cost the department $1850.

As comforting as the test results were, DERM employees found it difficult to breathe sighs of relief. In fact, for some, the simple act of breathing was difficult. Fries says several staffers have experienced scratchy throats and watery eyes since the move. The department recently hired another outside contractor, this time to conduct a sixteen-week air-quality test, for which $6500 has been set aside.

Two weeks ago employees who left the building for a lungful of (quasi-) fresh air confronted yet another environmental ill: They had to ford a small stream of sewage that was dribbling out from under their building. Fries says the landlord was informed the day the leak was discovered, and that when sewage continued to escape, DERM filed a "notice to correct a sanitary nuisance." William Donner brought in a private work crew, which barricaded the sidewalk outside the entrance of the building and began jackhammering down to the root of the problem. By the end of this past week, the crew had discovered that the sewage was leaking from a faulty connection under the building. The damage, the landlord assures, will be corrected.

"We just want to make sure we have a healthful environment for our employees," says Donna Fries. "We want to be proactive about this. Being an environmental regulatory agency, our employees are very aware we have environmental standards based on toxicological information. The average citizen probably doesn't know to test your water before you drink it."

Not that average citizens concerned about the environmental health of their workplace should get in touch with the experts at DERM. The Dade County Public Health Unit of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services is the agency that generally has been responsible for ensuring indoor air and drinking-water quality, and for educating the public about indoor environmental health issues. In practice, all that responsibility falls on the shoulders of one man, environmental specialist Harry Cherry, who must oversee every public and private building in Dade. Until now. This past month, Cherry notes with obvious relief, the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security and HRS entered into an agreement to share those responsibilities.

For his part, William Donner says he hasn't felt beleaguered by DERM's displeasure. "I'm sure they're more sensitive to these issues," the landlord says diplomatically. "That's their job. But I feel that they're taking a position that's correct." He points out that he and the county have successfully addressed and solved each environmental issue as it has arisen. And though he doesn't recall the previous tenant (a bank) being plagued by similar hazards, Donner emphasizes that the new occupants "are not a pain."

DERM's experiences at 33 SW Second Avenue may result in countywide repercussions: Donna Fries says she has recommended to the Metro-Dade Department of Development and Facilities Management that the county develop a prelease, indoor environmental checklist for all potential new county office space.


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