Sugarman's Corner

Valerie Hedrick's law office is separated from Sugarman's Corner by a wall. In June, employees in the office and neighboring Midland Empire Insurance allege they were exposed to toxic fumes when a city-hired contractor began treating the pocket park with a chemical spray. 

Jordan Ware’s office smelled “kind of weird” the morning of June 10.

Ware, a legal assistant in Valerie Hedrick’s downtown Klamath Falls law office, said he felt “sick to my stomach” and was getting “head rushes when I would stand up and walk around.”

The unfamiliar odor built slowly, multiple employees said, until the entirety of Hedrick’s law office — which is separated by a wall from Sugarman’s Corner — smelled like nail polish remover.

“It got to the point where you felt like you were choking on it,” Hedrick said. “It was almost like it was overpowering. You had to get out of the office.”

The employees in Hedrick’s office are among multiple downtown office workers who allege they were accidentally exposed to toxic fumes in mid-June, when a city-hired contractor sprayed chemical sealant on Sugarman’s Corner, the downtown pocket park at the intersection of Main and 6th streets.

“I think the consequence to what they did was completely unintentional,” Hedrick said. “My issue is the response.”

The city of Klamath Falls declined to comment on the incident.

“Due to the potential that these claims may result in litigation, it is inappropriate to comment on the matter at this time,” Kristina Mainwaring, the city’s public information officer, wrote in an email.

‘You’re poisoning my staff’

When Hedrick and others arrived at their office that day, they noted that Sugarman’s Corner was surrounded by a temporary chainlink fence. They assumed that the park was being cleaned ahead of its heavier summer use.

“It looked like they were just cleaning the park at first because they’d moved all the benches. They were pressure washing it,” said Justin Blyleven, another legal assistant in Hedrick’s office.

By noon, everyone in Hedrick’s office reported feeling headaches and sore throats. Others, like Ware, reported feeling nauseous. They decided to shut the office down.

Employees of Midland Empire Insurance, who occupy the next door down from Hedrick’s law office, did the same. Employees elected to finish the workday at home.

“It was burning,” said Liz Whisler, an agent for the insurance company. “You could taste it on your lips and in your eyes. Like, oh my gosh, as I sit here ... the worse it seems like it’s getting.”

Hedrick, in addition to being an established attorney, also serves as a pro tem judge. She knows several members of the city government and went to their offices at 500 Klamath Avenue to try to figure out what was going on. At this point, Hedrick said she was unaware that the employees at Midland were facing the same issue.

“I was angry, but I was being appropriate,” Hedrick said. “I wasn’t like over there, like screaming and yelling and throwing things. I was like, ‘What are you guys doing? You’re poisoning my staff, we all have to go home. Who’s gonna pay for that?’”

According to Hedrick, employees at the city said they would tell the contractor treating the park to not to work the park the next day — a Friday — and instead resume the work on the weekend. They also offered to provide fans to blow the fumes out of the building and advised Hedrick’s staff to turn off the building’s HVAC system.

Hedrick’s law office relies on a closed, internal server to store sensitive files, so employees are unable to work from home, she explained.

When employees arrived on Friday, those who had felt sick the day prior said the odor had lessened. They declined the fan that was offered to them and went to work. The HVAC was turned off, Hedrick said, leading to a reduction of the smell, but looking back she worried that that it also didn’t allow air in the building to circulate.

Ann-Marie Soares, another legal assistant, said her daughter was working at the office that Friday — but hadn’t the day prior — and immediately noticed the smell when she came in. Soares said her daughter later threw up blood.

After an hour and a half in the building again, employees were beginning to come down with symptoms similar to the previous day. After a short time in their offices, Midland employees also left to work from home.

“I was frustrated,” said Jenny Whiting, another Midland agent. “I don’t want to breathe in chemicals at all, especially at work ... you want to feel protected on your job. I feel like they should have really notified.”

After finding out what chemicals were being used on the park, they once again shut down their office at noon.

What was sprayed in the park?

Ware, the legal assistant, said he reached out to Terry Sellars, maintenance supervisor for the city’s parks to find out what chemicals were being used. Ware said Sellars told him that the city was using Euclid-brand Everclear and Masco-brand Surface Grip to treat concrete.

An online search for the safety data sheets for the chemicals showed that the products are hazardous if inhaled, Ware said. Both products are applied to concrete and should be allowed to dry in well-ventilated spaces, the safety sheets show. The Everclear sheet states that any nearby HVAC vents should be covered as inhaling it can cause respiratory irritation.

“Expect to have a low degree of toxicity by inhalation,” the surface grip data sheet states. “Excessive inhalation of vapors and/or spray/mist may cause respiratory irritation, dizziness, weakness, nausea, headache, loss of coordination and fatigue.”

Employees at Hedrick’s office and at Midland all said the symptoms persisted through that weekend.

Applications denied

By the following Monday, the smell was gone and Hedrick’s staff could work without fear of falling ill. Hedrick said she was notified by the city that employees could file a claim for lost wages. Hedrick told her staff about the application process.

Ware and Blyleven both applied in mid-July, writing in individual letters that they had each lost about eight hours in wages over the two days they were dealing with the fumes. Combined, they applied to be reimbursed for $288.

This past week both of their claims were denied. The city’s investigation of the matter found that the contractor had applied the sealants properly and the city would “respectfully decline any type of payment for this matter,” the denial letter signed by Mainwaring stated.

Hedrick was frustrated. Given what happened, she said it didn’t feel like they were asking for much in return.

“People are litigious, right?” Hedrick said. “People always are looking to make a big deal out of stuff. Nobody here was. Only two people were like, ‘Hey, will you pay me?’ And they were reasonable.”

Hedrick said she felt that the city wasn’t taking responsibility for what happened.

“We’re not asking for like ... future cancer screenings,” Hedrick said. “We’re not asking for anything other than their hourly wage. And the city couldn’t be bothered by that. The biggest kicker is, somebody pointed out yesterday, they have never ever ever apologized.”

At this point, Hedrick said she has no plans to sue, because suing a public entity is “a pain in the ass” and instead the matter needs to be heard “in the court of public opinion.”

“They are refusing to be accountable to the people that they made sick, and were forced to leave work,” Hedrick said. “If they can’t do that, then I think the community deserves to know what they did and their response.”

Hedrick said she told the city attorney that she might even make a commercial about it.

Altogether, 10 people across the two businesses told the Herald and News they were exposed to the chemical and felt the effects of the fumes. Eight of those people agreed to speak on the record and said there were others exposed who were not present for the interviews. No one said they visited a doctor.

{span}— Reporter Rick Childress can be reached at (541) 851-7301 or {/span}{span}. Follow him on Twitter @RickOChildress{/span}