Residents concerned about apartment site

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 23, 2001

FERRIDAY, La. – Residents around the site of a proposed apartment complex say that before any more digging is done at the site, they want the developer to test the soil for a fungus that can cause respiratory problems and blindness.

Digging conducted Monday has already stirred up the soil so much that Jeffery Ables, who lives adjacent to the site, will only step into her backyard after donning a paper mask. &uot;I used to go back there to work with flowers … and do quilting,&uot;&160;she said. &uot;A neighbor and I&160;used to go walking, but we’re afraid to do that anymore.&uot;

Buddy Spillers, president of developer Macon Ridge Community Development Corp., said finding a lab to test the soil has been difficult and that the tests aren’t required by law. Spillers said he will only do so if the Department of Environmental Quality is not satisfied with new information he plans to present to DEQ officials next week.

&uot;I am absolutely positive that there is no danger of histoplasmosis. There’s no evidence anybody got sick from it,&uot;&160;Spillers said, referring to a condition caused by a fungus that thrives on bird droppings.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration has posted a notice prohibiting B.A.S. Construction from conducting any more digging at the site until the firm states how it will protect its workers from the possible threat of infection.

The situation started in February 1999, when Macon Ridge held a hearing to gain public input on a proposed 16-unit apartment complex for the elderly it proposed for the intersection of Third Street and Ohio Avenue.

Residents at the hearing, including Ables, expressed concern about the possible threat of histoplasmosis at the site. They asked Spillers to have the soil tested for the fungus that causes the disease prior to starting work on the project. At the time, Spillers said he would direct those conducting the environmental study to check for things that could cause histoplasmosis. Histoplasmosis is a disease caused by inhaling spores of a fungus that thrives in places where bird or bat droppings are found, such as chicken houses or places where blackbirds have roosted for three years or more, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to local residents, a chicken house was previously located on the site, and blackbirds still roost there every year.

But Spillers said the site’s previous owner only owned some ducks as pets and did not raise chickens. &uot;And there’s been nobody there for years, 30 years ago ought to be long enough for (contaminants) to be dissipated,&uot;&160;he said. Spillers also said he hopes to present such information to DEQ regional officials in Monroe next week.

While the majority of people infected develop little to no symptoms, some have flu-like symptoms starting three to 17 days after exposure. But the disease can cause chronic lung disease or blindness, and children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems are more at risk.

So when Ables saw bulldozers start clearing the site and demolishing the old chicken house on Monday morning, she called Mayor Glen McGlothin to ask whether the soil samples had been conducted.

Ferriday police temporarily stopped work at the site until the mayor’s office could get a copy of the sample results.

&uot;(The mayor) called me at noon or 1 (p.m.) that day and said the soil results were in and they were fine,&uot;&160;Ables said. Macon Ridge had fulfilled the requirements set forth by the Town of Ferriday, the mayor has said. But those results did not include tests for histoplasmosis.

Spillers said the lab to which the soil samples were sent was not equipped to test for histoplasmosis and was not able to find another lab in the region that could do so.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires construction on projects funded with HUD loans, such as the Ohio Street complex, to start within 10 days after the loan is closed, Spillers said.

So with time running short and no lab equipped for histoplasmosis testing to be found, Spillers decided that since the tests were not required, they would not be done.

&uot;I&160;would be doing (Ables) a favor by doing the tests – it’s not required,&uot;&160;Spillers said. &uot;And we tried to get those tests done.&uot;

With construction proceeding at the site, Ables called several governmental agencies – including OSHA, which posted a notice at the site Tuesday. That notice stated that the construction firm, B.A.S. Construction of Rayville, had to investigate the site for histoplasmosis and do whatever necessary to protect workers within five days.

The best way to minimize the risk of spreading the virus, according to the CDC, is to wet the soil before digging, place it in heavy-duty plastic bags or secure drums and dispose of it at an approved site. If such an investigation is not done, OSHA itself will investigate the site. The agency is looking into the matter, Elizabeth Todd, spokesperson for OSHA’s regional office in Dallas, said Thursday.

Work was not being done at the site as of Thursday afternoon.

&uot;I don’t want to stop this project. I&160;know there’s a need for that type of housing,&uot; said Ables, a nurse who is on medical leave unrelated to histoplasmosis.

&uot;I just don’t want anyone to get sick. We have elderly residents and people from respiratory problems living around here. We’re right next to the high school, and kids walk by that site every day.&uot;