The public library in the Elliot Lake mall that collapsed in June was marred with persistent leaks and mould that drew the scrutiny of the Ministry of Labour, private engineering companies and the city’s health and safety committee over the course of several years.
Concerns about the library’s condition are the latest details to emerge in the story of the roof cave-in at the Elliot Lake Algo Centre on June 23, which killed two women and injured several others. The incident thrust the small northern Ontario community onto front pages across the country and sparking a public inquiry that held its first public meeting last week.
While there is no evidence to suggest a connection between the collapse and poor conditions in the library, documents obtained by The Globe and Mail offer a glimpse inside a building that locals say was allowed to fall into a state of disrepair.
Deputy mayor Al Collett believes some of his colleagues voted in 2009 to keep the library inside the Algo Centre, despite concerns about the state of the facility, because of a desire to draw patrons to the financially struggling mall.
“I still can’t understand that one,” Mr. Collett said.
“We wanted a new building,” he said. “It was deplorable – there was leaks, there was mould.”
Instead, council voted to enter into a new lease on behalf of the library with Eastwood Mall Inc., the mall’s current owner, in 2009. According to the lease, the landlord was responsible for maintenance of the roof, which had been affected by water infiltration.
Mr. Collett’s comments aside, an Elliot Lake spokesperson said the city would not answer questions on any story related to the Algo Centre.
Doug Souliere, a former city councillor, said the city had no other option but to leave the library in the mall after plans for a multi-use centre failed. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but sometimes you get boxed in,” he said.
By 2009, concerns about the library were well-worn. A letter dated June 1, 2005 from Elliot Lake chief administrative officer Troy Speck to Richard Kennealy of Elliot Lake Retirement Living, which owned the mall through a subsidiary, said the library had experienced “severe leaks from the roof” for several years.
The letter said an investigation from a city committee found “one severe health hazard and some safety hazards.” Mr. Speck also said ceiling tiles that became saturated with water could fall on patrons or employees.
“Richard, all these problems are clearly caused by the roof leaks and unless something can be done will only continue in the future,” Mr. Speck wrote in the letter’s final paragraph.
Mr. Kennealy, general manager of Retirement Living, did not recall Mr. Speck’s letter and, in an interview, said the leaks were infrequent and that they were adequately addressed.
A 2005 form from the Elliot Lake joint health and safety committee noted a “mould concern,” and recommended the library move to a different building.
Former library board chair Katherine Croxson said many staffers and board members wanted to leave the building, and raised several concerns about the state of the facility.
“There was water in the light fixtures,” Ms. Croxson said. “We pointed it out to council … It was obvious. You could see it, and nobody did anything.”
Ms. Croxson also said that city council exercised an undue amount of authority over the library board, including control of its finances.
Librarians’ reports, which feature relevant updates on everything from staff training to meetings, are littered with anecdotes about leaking ceilings.
One report from April 2005 says that a Ministry of Labour hygiene consultant had inspected the library on May 3. The ministry will not comment on investigations at the Algo Centre.
In 2005, Quest, a local cleaning company, sent samples from the library to a laboratory, where drywall paper was found to contain “abundant” mould. A Quest report indicates that the company had met with Ministry of Labour staff, who were gathering air samples. A note in the report reads: “Received lab report on samples submitted and shared results with Library and Ministry of Labour Staff.”
Robert Stirling, owner of Quest Enterprises, said his company was most concerned with routine cleaning of the library’s carpet.
Other documents indicate that M.R. Wright & Associates, a Sault Ste. Marie-based engineering firm, had inspected the library for mould growth in 2006 and 2008, while also analyzing seven books for mould growth in 2008. The firm found insufficient evidence to support claims of mould growth in all three cases.
The firm did acknowledge that the library was experiencing numerous leaks, which appeared to be originating from the building’s parking lot, the site of June’s collapse.
DST, another firm, also inspected the library. A librarian’s report from September 2008 states that a DST technician found no mould in the library, but did discover “a problem with the carpets.” A subsequent librarian’s report indicates that the firm had made recommendations regarding air quality.
DST declined to comment.