ORONO, Maine — Mold problems found last fall in a new apartment complex appear to have returned, according to some tenants.
Town officials on Tuesday released documents — including air quality test results — indicating there was a mold problem at The Grove apartment complex shortly after it opened in September.
The presence of mold was confirmed in four apartments by air quality tests performed by TP Environmental Consulting of Brewer, according to the documents. The tests were commissioned by The Grove’s parent company, Campus Crest Communities Inc., which is headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.
Levels of Aspergillus, a common form of mold, were found to be elevated in two of the four apartments, according to the test results dated Sept.28.
In a letter to the general manager of The Grove dated Oct. 3, Orono Health Officer Robert St. Louis stated that follow-up tests by TP Environmental Consulting “indicate a strong potential for adverse health [e]ffects in your tenants.”
While that incident was remediated to the town’s satisfaction by Campus Crest, Orono officials have received new complaints about mold in the apartments, Town Manager Sophie Wilson and St. Louis, the town’s fire chief, said Tuesday.
St. Louis said the town has received three mold complaints since last week, when the complex experienced a series of power outages.
Wilson and St. Louis were careful to point out that the presence of mold this winter has yet to be confirmed. They said testing has yet to be done in response to the new complaints but will be requested.
Orono officials are scheduled to meet with representatives of Campus Crest on Thursday afternoon, Wilson said. The meeting will not be open to the public, she said.
“I believe that The Grove is putting their best foot forward to attempt to deal with the circumstance. The town’s responsibility is to look out for the health and safety of our public. That’s our job,” she said.
“When we receive complaints, which we have, it’s our job to go in, document what we see, interactions between tenants and landlord,” she said.
“It is an important public safety issue but the town is limited under the codes and the state laws that we have,” Wilson said. “The Grove also has independent contractual relationships with all of those tenants that are independent of the town’s enforcement capabilities, so if tenants choose to deal with this through the civil process that is their right.”
“We do not have the authority, under public health statutes, to require action unless we can document reasonable suspicion that the mold is actively causing health issues,” Wilson said, adding that the town does not have a mold specialist or mold remediation specialist on staff.
The documents reviewed Tuesday contradict a statement made by Michael Hartnett, a co-founder of Campus Crest, who said Saturday that the corporation’s Orono property did not have mold problems.
He said at that time that the problem actually was mildew from moisture in some of the complex’s concrete work and that it had been addressed.
Tenants interviewed over the weekend and Tuesday, however, insisted they have been dealing with mold.
Lindsey Lavoie, a 19-year-old University of Maine sophomore, said Tuesday that her apartment was among the ones that experienced a mold problem last fall.
“They sent a couple of guys over and they cleaned up the mold and told us to keep the window open and the [ventilation] fan running,” she said. She said, however, that she and her roommates did not keep the windows open because of holes in the frames and the mold returned.
The problem was solved after a second cleanup and so far has not resurfaced, she said. She said that the complex’s management provided a dehumidifier but that the device since has been removed.
Last weekend, Whitney Remington and her sister Lauren Remington, who also live at The Grove, provided a tour of their apartment. During the tour, they pointed out what they believe to be mold growing on their windows and in their bathroom.
“It’s mold — it’s straight-up mold,” Whitney Remington said. Lauren Remington said she is worried about the mold because she is pregnant.
Last fall’s mold problem prompted St. Louis to issue a strongly worded letter to the Grove’s general manager, Alex Carson, dated Oct. 3, in which he wrote:
“Despite the reason that mold may be growing more in some apartments than others, the fact remains that there are apartments within your complex that are reading severe levels of [total volatile organic compounds] and [total microbial volatile organic compounds],” he wrote.
“The levels reported to me by the independent agency you hired indicate a strong potential for adverse health [e]ffects in your tenants,” St. Louis wrote, adding, “Due to the severity of these conditions, I strongly recommend that the residents in those apartments be temporarily relocated until the air quality is testing to be in acceptable ranges.”
The Bangor Daily News was not immediately able to determine if tenants in the affected units were moved to other locations at that time. A Campus Crest spokesman did not answer the question.
Campus Crest spokesman Phil Denning issued the following statement Tuesday:
“The safety and well being of our residents and guests is our top priority. We quickly address resident concerns to ensure a safe and comfortable living environment. We are confident that we have the right HVAC equipment installed that, when adequately powered, will achieve the desired balance in temperature and air circulation.”
Since the complex opened on Sept. 1, tenants have said they’ve been plagued with mold and mildew problems, plumbing problems and appliances that weren’t working, according to residents who were interviewed recently by the Bangor Daily News as well as reports from The Maine Campus, the University of Maine’s student newspaper.
The Orono complex also has been the site of raucous parties, including one that drew more than 300 in September, according to Orono police. That has calmed down since stepped-up security measures were put in place.
More recently, renters at The Grove — which uses heat pumps with a small electrical backup — experienced a series of power outages as a result of increased demand for electricity during a week-long cold snap. There also were frozen water pipes and sprinkler systems, according to tenants and town officials who spoke to the Bangor Daily News.
Hartnett on Saturday attributed the power problem to transformers that were too small to handle the amount of electricity being consumed.
Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. spokeswoman Susan Faloon, however, said Tuesday that after speaking with engineers involved in the project, the utility believes last week’s outages occurred because “actual demand on the electrical system exceeded projected demand.”
Faloon said Bangor Hydro built The Grove’s electrical system based on information received from the project designers regarding load.
“We couldn’t have anticipated this problem based on that information,” she said in an email. “We believe the use of more efficient heat pumps may have prevented the problem. We support heat pump technology, however, we recommend units that meet certain efficiency guidelines.
“Bangor Hydro has a heat-pump pilot program that provides financial incentives for heat pumps that actually exceed Energy Star guidelines. The units that are being used here do not meet those guidelines or even Energy Star guidelines,” she said.
“We believe we’ve taken steps to address the problems for now and we’ve also identified some potential solutions to prevent future outages and will work with property management to come up with a long-term solution,” she said.
Sean O’Mara, student legal services attorney for University of Maine Student Government Inc., said Monday that he is working with 15 to 20 undergraduates who are experiencing problems with The Grove’s management.
He suspects, however, that the number of unhappy renters likely is larger: “There are more that share common spaces with these people and there are more that haven’t come in to see me, according to the students who have.”
O’Mara said that about half of the students he is working with have identified mold as a problem. He said he has not received test results to bear those claims out.
Located off Park Street about a half-mile from the Rangeley Road entrance to the University of Maine, the roughly $25.3 million complex is made up of a dozen buildings with 12 apartments in each, as well as another eight four-bedroom units called “townhomes.” The entire facility has a 620-tenant capacity. Residents pay an average monthly rent of $520 per person.
Wilson said Tuesday that town officials are satisfied that code requirements were met during the construction phase.
“Our code officer did an extensive inspection. We called in assistance from neighboring communities and the state to do the inspection. It was permitted for a specific design. A lot of thought went into that, a lot of engineering review went into that,” she said. She reserved further comment until after Thursday’s meeting with Campus Crest representatives.