Headaches after V.H. terminal boiler blowback incident

Complaints come as Vineyard reservation agents fight for better pay.

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The furnace room upstairs at the Steamship Authority terminal building in Vineyard Haven. —Rich Saltzberg

There are only three reservation agents working on the Vineyard for the Steamship Authority. They work upstairs at the Vineyard Haven terminal. The agents — Carmen Amadeo, Camille Carter, and Shari Duncan — have complained of unpleasant odors, and two have suffered headaches, ever since a boiler located in a room adjacent to their office suffered a blowback on Thanksgiving Day last year. A blowback is a kind of malfunction that can result in the emission of fumes and soot.

In an email to The Times, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll wrote that the blowback resulted in “a black, sooty substance being released from the furnace unit.”

The hard-wired smoke detectors in the terminal building are designed to signal the fire department when they are triggered. Despite soot wafting into upstairs rooms, “[t]he smoke detectors did not go off,” Driscoll wrote. Neither Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling or Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio were aware a blowback took place, and neither could find any call records for the incident. Driscoll could not say for sure why the detectors did not go off.

“The blowback was most likely the result of maintenance being due on the furnace unit,” he wrote. “Following the incident, we had the unit professionally cleaned, and replaced the burner, which can also be a contributing factor to soot.”

During a walk-through of the upstairs rooms of the terminal building with The Times, Driscoll said Servpro was brought in to clean up after the blowback. He said while personnel were downstairs at the time of the incident, nobody was working upstairs then. During the cleanup, he said, the three reservation agents, or clerks, as Driscoll terms them, were transferred to Mashpee.

The three reservation agents have declined comment. Former Oak Bluffs selectman Todd Rebello, a high school classmate of Duncan’s, said he’s known the three women for “as long as I can remember,” and is providing information to The Times on their behalf. Among other reasons, Rebello said, the three agents cannot comment because their union is in the midst of collective bargaining with the SSA.

“They made management aware of the issue a while back,” Rebello said of the headaches in a text message. “They haven’t seen any results of any testing.”

Driscoll provided The Times with a detailed environmental report from Nauset Environmental Services that did not find toxins in the air. “Sampling for air toxic compounds in the second floor of the Terminal found no detectable levels of fuel-related air toxics about their respective reporting limits,” the report states. “The only compounds detected were compounds commonly found in cleaning agents.”

Nevertheless, Rebello said, two of the three women are still suffering from headaches.

“[T]he only time we have had complaints of headaches from employees in the reservation office was following the blowback,” Driscoll emailed, “which is why we sent them to Mashpee to work while the cleaning and air-quality testing was underway. If we had ongoing complaints, we would address them promptly …”

“Two of them are allergic to mold,” Rebello texted. “One of them has been tested by a doctor, and their mold test is off the charts.”

The Times has not been able to independently confirm any medical mold tests the women may have received, and cannot confirm the women’s headaches are a direct result of environmental factors in the terminal.

Headaches can be a symptom of mold exposure, according to a National Toxicology Program fact sheet.

Driscoll wrote that the SSA commissioned mold remediation in the terminal in November 2017 “after the HVAC-related leak damaged the ceiling in the lobby …” As The Times reported in November 2017, Sheetrock inside the terminal suffered water damage and required replacement. “At that time, Servpro cleaned the air ducts and registers downstairs,” Driscoll wrote. “There was no water damage upstairs; however, following the blowback, Servpro did clean the ducts upstairs as well.”

Headaches are also a symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.

The SSA did not commission testing for carbon monoxide, Driscoll emailed.

It is unclear whether one or more carbon monoxide detectors were properly functioning at the time of the blowback or thereafter.

Driscoll pointed out there are battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors in the terminal building, and that SSA personnel are charged with replacing the batteries when needed. “[T]he standalone detectors chirp when the battery is low,” he wrote.

However, he later emailed, “The carbon monoxide detector that was in place the day of the blowback is a plug-in unit. The other was installed following the blowback.”

Rebello texted that in conversation with the women, he learned at least one carbon monoxide detector did not appear to be in working order, and that no detector was located in the hallway of the second floor that separates the reservation office from the furnace room.

Driscoll said he believed at least one new detector has been installed. He did not know if Servpro cleaned the detectors as part of the service they provided.

“You don’t see it often; I don’t, anyway,” Keith Fullin, owner of Fullin and Bettencourt Plumbing and Heating, said of blowbacks. Fullin confirmed such incidents can blow soot around a building, and that they can be the results of a safety mechanism failure.

“Have your heating system, water heater, and any other gas-, oil-, or coal-burning appliances serviced by a qualified technician every year,” the CDC site recommends.

Union negotiations

The SSA chapter of SEIU Local 888, which includes reservation clerks at the Mashpee call center, is entirely composed of women, according to Rebello. They are negotiating for better pay and benefits. He pointed out the three women at the Vineyard Haven terminal are minority, either African American or Native American, and all are heads of households. He further pointed out two are single mothers, and that the three make less per hour after years of SSA service than do new-hire ticket sellers. Driscoll said the strictures of collective bargaining prevent him from commenting freely about the women’s compensation, but he could provide present pay rates based on past collective bargaining:

 

  • The hourly rate for a ticket seller is $23.92.
  • The hourly rate for a reservation clerk (Martha’s Vineyard counter), which these employees are classified as, is $19.43.
  • The hourly rate for a reservation clerk (phones), which the Mashpee reservation clerks are classified as, despite having the same job duties, is $17.23.

“[T]icket sellers are part of a different bargaining unit and have more duties and different working conditions than a reservations clerk,” Driscoll wrote, “including handling cash and dealing face-to-face with the public. Additionally, ticket sellers have to report to work in inclement weather, unlike the reservation office which can close in case of snow, and closes on holidays.”

Rebello said that while he’s not part of the negotiations, he has provided the three women advice from time to time, and listened at length to their concerns. He said they felt their previous union representative did not serve their interests well. That representative has since been replaced, he said. Reached at the union’s Braintree office, Maureen Medeiros, a lawyer for SEIU Local 888, declined to comment due to ongoing bargaining.