UVI students: New dorm has mold, leaks
Published: September 19, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - When sophomore Matthew Eastman arrived at the University of the Virgin Islands West Residence Hall to begin his fall semester, he found that he was not only sharing his suite with three other students but also, apparently, a colony of black mold.
Eastman said he was one of four students who had to be relocated out of the first floor suite because of water damage, but the bowing and crumbling bathroom ceiling is just one of a host of problems students who live in the building have faced.
Students who spoke to The Daily News described similar leaks originating in upper floor showers, air-conditioning malfunctions, security concerns raised by dysfunctional card swipe mechanisms and a spate of days just after move-in this semester when the fire alarm randomly went off for days on an almost hourly basis.
"One of my suitemates had an asthma attack and had to go to the hospital," Eastman said. "We don't know if it's because of the mold, but it would seem reasonable to suppose that it was."
Concerns about the $10 million dorm, which is just one year old and was hailed as a state-of-the-art facility when it opened last year, prompted UVI President David Hall to invite dorm residents to a meeting of the university's board of trustees' Buildings and Grounds Committee.
On Wednesday, UVI officials downplayed the extent of the issues in interviews with The Daily News.
UVI spokeswoman Nanyamka Farrelly said that other than the suite Eastman had occupied, Room 150, and an air-conditioning malfunction that affected only one suite, students had not reported any other issues.
Freshman Luke Perry said students were told by campus officials that they would have to forego air conditioning for a few days around Labor Day because a broken unit could not be fixed "because it was a three-day weekend."
Of the random misfiring of fire alarm, Perry said: "We panicked because we were told that after 30 minutes the sprinklers would go off. All our stuff is in there."
Perry said he was concerned the dormitory is "wide open" to non-residents because card swipe locks have not been working.
Two weeks, no repair
Eastman said he noticed the leak in the bathroom within the first week of living there.
"The paint was all bubbled up," he said.
The leak persisted for the next two weeks, without repairs, according to Eastman. When one of the students called the housing department to complain, they were instructed not to turn the light on in the bathroom, he said.
By the time he was relocated a couple of weeks ago, the ceiling was "mush," Eastman said.
"You could put your finger through it," he said.
When a maintenance crew removed the crumbling ceiling, it became apparent that "the ceiling is all just black mold" and that the black substance had spread into and weakened an adjacent wall, according to Eastman.
Eastman, who is a temporary transfer student from the University of New Hampshire, said that, given the inconvenience, discomfort and hazard associated with living in a contaminated suite and then being relocated, he would like the administration to refund all or some of the $2,600 he has paid to live in the dormitory for the semester.
"I think it's ridiculous. We shouldn't have to live somewhere where there is mold," Eastman said.
Meeting with the board
Some students may have expressed similar views to the university's board of trustees at a scheduled meeting on Sept. 5 of the board's buildings and grounds committee, but UVI officials will not discuss the meeting.
Board member Oswin Sewer said that, while invited students expressed many positive things about living on the university's campuses, leaks had come up during discussions with students from the St. Thomas and the St. Croix campuses. However, Sewer said he could not recall which residents of which dorms had specifically identified the issues because the meeting was conducted via teleconference.
Other board members The Daily News contacted did not return phone calls.
The 37,000-square-foot West Hall dorm was built with $10 million the university borrowed from the United States Department of Education. University officials had touted the new "state-of-the art" building as a solution to a housing shortage on St. Thomas and said that because of amenities such as air conditioning, the rates for occupancy would be higher than for other dorms.
The facility can house up to 100 students, according to Farrelly.
It opened one week behind schedule in August 2012, and the contractor, GEC LLC, of St. Croix, had to put up 64 students in the Emerald Beach Resort because of the delay.
Eastman and Perry said some residents of the dorm community have speculated that the building was hastily constructed based on the number of issues observed in this school year.
"I talked to an RA and he said it seems like every day there is something else wrong with the building. He said they put it up in a year, and that it seems like they were really hasty to finish it," Eastman said.
Farrelly interrupted on-campus interviews with Eastman and Perry to inform the students that The Daily News should have routed requests for interviews through the university's public relations office. In a second interview, Eastman said Farrelly was texting him, instructing him not to speak to The Daily News.
Student housing director Sean Georges left a message with The Daily News saying he could not respond to an interview request because all questions would be handled by Farrelly.
In an interview, Farrelly said that the university could not confirm that there are mold colonies in the building but that since the suite on the first floor had been closed, the school had undertaken an investigation.
It will take an unknown amount of time to ascertain whether health and safety concerns are valid, as a licensed contractor would have to be hired to assess the water damage and to look at other parts of the building, according to Farrelly.
"Upon preliminary investigation, it seems like an air-conditioning condensate leak may have caused the issue, but until the investigation is complete, we won't know for sure," Farrelly said.
Also unknown is when the damage actually will be repaired.
"We don't know for sure yet," Farrelly said.
Hall declined to discuss the maintenance issues when reached by phone Wednesday evening.
"You seem to be doing story after story about minor things, and it's really problematic," Hall said.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.