Ruptured valve showers Circuit Court offices

  By Thomas Wilson
  star staff
  twilson@starhq.com
  At least it was not a sewer line.
  A ruptured pressure valve caused a water line to break between the first and second floor of the Carter County Courthouse Annex on Tuesday morning showering a portion of the Circuit Court Clerk offices with water. The water leak occurred shortly after 10 a.m. in the General Sessions Court office where clerks noticed water leaking from the ceiling near the service counter.
  "It started slowly and the next thing we knew it gushed," said Laura Cowan, one of several court clerks who witnessed the latest round of water damage to the annex building.
  Jail trustys mopped water and removed damaged ceiling tiles in the office while water was shut off in a portion of the building. Circuit Court employees have endured a series of flooding incidents that have doused their offices and one courtroom during the past three years. "If we can save the equipment we'll be lucky," Circuit Court Clerk John Paul Mathes said shortly after the water damage occurred. "It is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen."
  Despite not having to work in raw sewage this time, circuit court employees were less than amused by again being forced to dodge dripping water inside their offices. The first floor offices have sustained previous water damage caused by inmates housed in the county jail on the building's second floor. Inmates caused massive flooding of the jail nearly three years ago through the sewer system sending urine and excrement into first floor offices and courtrooms.
   County Mayor Dale Fair said plumbing workers told him the threads on the pipe valve had weakened and stripped the part that blew off the top of the line.
  "It is plain old water," said Fair. "It is not sewage."
  Mathes said that while environmental tests of the building revealed no "black mold" present in the court offices, he doubted that prolonged exposure to various elements in water and sewer run off could be terribly healthy for anyone.
  "You can't be healthy when you're breathing it every day and working in it," he said.
  County employees working at the courthouse annex told the Star in November that they had experienced a variety of aggravated health problems including asthma, sinus infections, congestion and strep throat since the sewer system flood occurred three years ago.
   The reports prompted county officials to hire a private environmental services company to test the building for the presence of mold. In a report to the county in mid-November, S&ME engineering firm reported airborne stachybotrys present in an office in the Carter County Sheriff's Department used by the Criminal Investigations Division. The survey did not report the presence of black mold in the areas tested.
  The presence of "black mold" or stachybotrys chartarum has become a major public health concern in recent years. Black mold can cause symptoms like nasal stuffiness, eye irritation or wheezing in people who are sensitive to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. Mold detected at the county courthouse was visible on the paneling that covers the storage room walls.
   The courthouse annex was built in the early 1980s and became the center of debate for county government regarding overcrowding at the county jail. A class-action lawsuit was filed against the county earlier this year seeking millions in damages for poor conditions within the jail. Built to house 91 inmates, the jail typically houses 200 or more on any given day.
  The county government reached a settlement in the lawsuit with an agreement to build additional space to house inmates. County Commission members have wrestled with raising the county's property tax from $2.22 to $2.52 to fund the new jail's construction.
  Fair said the county could pursue a claim with its insurance carrier depending on the amount of damage caused by the latest water works. Cowan said Tuesday afternoon that the computers in the court office were not damaged by the water.
  County Commissioner Jim Whaley who observed Tuesday's leak said the annex building had never been used effectively in housing inmates above court offices and courtrooms.
  "This has been nothing but a headache since it opened up," Whaley said. "You don't build a building backwards or upside down, which is what this one was."