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Odor in the court

February 20, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

If the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the people who work in Berkeley County Magistrate Court are hoping the stinky wheel gets the breeze.

A breeze of fresh air, that is.

Over years, a sewer-like smell has sporadically permeated the John Street courthouse, worsening allergies and causing dizziness, headaches and other problems, some say.

To try to remedy the situation, 15 people who work in magistrate court, including magistrates, assistant prosecutors and clerks, came to the Berkeley County Commission meeting Thursday morning and asked that an emergency discussion be held.


Commissioners agreed to listen.

"It smells like you're in the sewer plant," said Magistrate Harry Snow.

"It's inhibiting our ability to have court," said assistant prosecutor Betsy Giggenbach.

Roy Davis, director of the county's community service program, compared the smell to that in an outhouse.

After Magistrate Sandy Miller asked the commissioners to come down to smell it for themselves, Commission President Steve Teufel promised he would on his lunch break.

"Don't eat first," warned Magistrate Joan Bragg.

After meeting with the commissioners, the employees met with Circuit Judge David Sanders, who said he is familiar with the odor from his days as an attorney.

Sanders gave employees permission to close their offices if they felt their health was in jeopardy or if they felt they could not adequately serve the public. By mid-afternoon, the offices were still open.

Sanders asked the employees, if possible, to temporarily relocate their offices to the building's main or second floor.

Although the smell wafts throughout the building, it is most prevalent in the basement. There, clerks burn candles, run a dehumidifier and a fan, and spray fragrance aerosol cans to try to keep the odor at bay.

A handwritten sign on Snow's office door reads: "Please do not shut this door."

Closing the door makes it worse, said Snow's assistant, Cynthia Graham.

Some days are worse than others.

"You would go home and it would be on your clothes, in your hair," Graham said.

Graham compared the smell to that found in portable toilets placed outside during summer sporting events. She has been seeing a doctor for dizziness, and the doctor can find nothing wrong. She now wonders whether the odor could be the cause.

Along with Snow's office, the basement also houses a holding cell, a file room, Davis' office, a courtroom and Magistrate Scott Paugh's office.

Paugh's assistant, Meg Bragger, said her allergy-like symptoms have gotten worse since she started working for Paugh in December.

At first, she dismissed it as working in a possibly damp basement, but now believes the smell, which she compared to that of a backed-up toilet, could be the cause. Recently, her eyes started to become watery and swollen.

Other problems employees complained of included headaches and a burning sensation in the throat.

Magistrate Court opened in the former school in 1977. The school was built decades earlier.

After walking around the building, a Professional Plumbing and Heating employee said one problem is that the building is simply too old.

Davis, who doubles as a handyman, said the basement once housed bathrooms and the school's kitchen. Several years ago, when expansion required that offices be built in the basement, Davis removed numerous toilets and urinals and filled the holes with concrete.

"The stink is between the holes and the sewage line," he said. "When the water table rises, it brings the smell with it."

Davis said he's the type of person who does not tend to let things like the odor bother him. He's not immune, though.

"I was sick last Friday, and I don't normally get sick," he said.

Teufel kept his promise to visit and toured the building with Davis and two city of Martinsburg employees, who were attempting to find the source of the smell.

Teufel said he smelled nothing but baby powder and other masking agents.

"I'll wait to see what the professionals tell us," Teufel said.

After speaking with them, Teufel said he'll fix the problem using the best, most cost-efficient method possible.

Melvin Prince, a city laborer, said after walking throughout the building that he spotted several possible sources of the odor. Water may need to be placed down the old holes Davis filled with concrete to ensure the traps are not dry.

Also, a drain outside the building at the bottom of a sunken stairway may be the cause. Storm water, which is sometimes known to include sewage, could be pooling there, Prince said.

However, he said the source could be any of the building's numerous cast-iron pipes, most of which are connected to the city's sewage system.

Magistrate courts are part of the state's court system. State officials pay the county $50,000 to rent the building, Berkeley County Administrator Deborah Hammond has said.

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