The Country Club of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry have settled a case involving nine asbestos-related violations at the exclusive River Road retreat, but some employees and members are anxious about potential long-term health problems and angry about the club's handling of the matter, according to information obtained from official and confidential sources. While the asbestos has been removed and the affected area of the club now is considered safe by all parties to the investigation, the risk of long-term health problems due to possible asbestos exposure among CCV employees, members and others is unknown. Labor department officials say no one can tell how much asbestos employees and members were exposed to over the years, or whether they will suffer health problems as a result. A group of fibrous minerals once widely used in insulation, tiles and other building materials for their strength and heat-resistant properties, asbestos can cause lung cancer and other life-threatening illnesses that may not surface until decades after exposure. Usually exposure occurs when products containing asbestos are disturbed. That can release into the air tiny, needle-shaped asbestos fibers that can become lodged in the lungs and other organs, slowly damaging them. Virginia Occupational Safety and Health Compliance Manager Richard C. Angell, who supervised the three-month CCV investigation, says the club had resolved its asbestos problems before inspectors arrived in July. Angell adds CCV showed "good faith" in cooperating with the investigation, another reason the labor department agreed to settle the case and fine the club $3,750 half of the $7,500 in penalties it imposed Aug. 27. In a Sept. 30 letter to the club, Angell also cited CCV's "commitment to safety, concern for providing a safe working environment for its employees, the circumstances surrounding these violations, and the measures you have taken to prevent their recurrence." CCV initially contested the violations, but withdrew its challenge during a Sept. 23 conference of department officials, club representatives and three employees. CCV General Manager William "Skip" Harris says the club settled to avoid the costs of litigation and essentially has agreed to disagree with the labor department about the violations. "It was an economic decision to settle the matter," he says. "I don't think any of the violations were valid." That and his belief that no one has been endangered are why the club has not formally notified all employees and members about the matter, he says. However, the eight "serious" and one "other-than-serious" violations stem largely from the club's failure to notify employees of asbestos discovered in old ceiling tiles at the club's recently renovated tennis shop and "adjacent areas," labor department documents state. An employee says the off-white, two-foot-square acoustical ceiling tiles are similar to the drop-ceiling tiles common in contemporary office buildings. A Feb. 19 report from a firm CCV hired to check for asbestos before the club began renovating the tennis shop area states the ceiling tiles were 5 percent asbestos. But during the labor department investigation this summer, CCV's "Angela Stewart, controller, admitted that they had not communicated to employees that asbestos was found in the ceiling tiles as indicated on the asbestos survey report." Stewart "also acknowledged that management had known previously that employees were disturbing the ceiling tiles" during maintenance work and while preparing for the renovation project, creating an increased risk of exposure, a labor department report says. An employee says the tiles in a low-ceiling area also were occasionally damaged over the years by people swinging tennis rackets and other inadvertent contact. CCV also committed a violation in not posting warning labels on the tiles after it knew they contained asbestos, the report says. Other violations arose from not employing various required safety measures when workers handled the tiles before the renovation project. The tiles finally were removed in June by a CCV member's asbestos firm with no public notice of the abatement, another violation. All of the ceiling tiles were removed by June 18, shortly before the labor department was contacted by employees at the club. Employees will not say how they learned the asbestos was present, but say the use of a CCV member's firm made them suspicious the club was trying to keep word of any problems "in-house." An employee says that, as club workers grew nervous and frustrated by perceived stonewalling, another study of the tiles was commissioned. A June 29 report addressed from the asbestos lab to a CCV employee states the tiles were 20 percent asbestos. The abatement generated a familiar sight in the tennis shop area: dust. "At least one member ... came into direct contact with it during the abatement," an employee says. Before the abatement, an employee adds, a CCV maintenance worker got a face full of tile dust now feared to have contained asbestos when he cut into the tile to fix a leak in the ceiling above: "He's pretty freaked out." Employees also routinely encountered the dust on counters and other surfaces in the tennis shop area, and architects and interior designers in the area before the renovations also may have been exposed to the "dust flying around," an employee says. Harris says he's confident the abatement contractor performed the work correctly and safely, and allegations of improper abatement were deemed unfounded by the labor department. The only violation arising from the abatement was CCV's failure to post warning signs at the tennis shop entrance about the asbestos removal. While the law protects them, employees fear retaliation from CCV managers, one of whom allegedly said the employees' whistle-blowing "betrayed our trust." "I sleep well at night because I know I did the right thing," an employee says. A member of the club, perturbed about learning of the matter from a reporter and alarmed about the possible health risks, says CCV should have fought the violations if it believed they were invalid. "I can't imagine money was a problem," the member says. "It does seem a little short-sighted and cheap." The initial cost of joining CCV is about $50,000, depending on age, location and other factors, a member says. The member's monthly dues for a family of five, not including fees for golfing or other club services, are $365. Harris, who is not the member who disclosed the amounts, says CCV has about 3,800 member families. While the club might make a juicy target for litigation, an employee says, "I don't think anybody's made a decision" about suing CCV. "At this point I don't know of anyone who's been damaged by this," adds Harris, who knows as well as anyone it takes years for asbestos problems to develop and provide legal standing. While Harris contends there is nothing the club should have done differently, he offers, "I certainly regret that anything that occurred here caused any of our employees any concern." "I truly think he believes that," an employee replies. "I really do. I'll give him that he's holding on to his convictions. But they're very
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