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Relocating in Royalton

  • Pedestrians walk past the Center of Legal Services building in South Royalton. The Vermont Law School building was completed this summer but some workers have moved out due to health reasons.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Pedestrians walk past the Center of Legal Services building in South Royalton. The Vermont Law School building was completed this summer but some workers have moved out due to health reasons.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amy McDowell, manager of the Barrister's Book Shop in South Royalton, has experienced headaches since moving into the new VLS building in August.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Amy McDowell, manager of the Barrister's Book Shop in South Royalton, has experienced headaches since moving into the new VLS building in August.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Staff for the Center for Legal Services have moved out of their new building after half of them experienced allergy-like symptoms.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Staff for the Center for Legal Services have moved out of their new building after half of them experienced allergy-like symptoms.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Pedestrians walk past the Center of Legal Services building in South Royalton yesterday. Completed this summer, some employees in the Vermont Law School building have experienced allergy-like symptoms.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Pedestrians walk past the Center of Legal Services building in South Royalton yesterday. Completed this summer, some employees in the Vermont Law School building have experienced allergy-like symptoms.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Pedestrians walk past the Center of Legal Services building in South Royalton. The Vermont Law School building was completed this summer but some workers have moved out due to health reasons.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Amy McDowell, manager of the Barrister's Book Shop in South Royalton, has experienced headaches since moving into the new VLS building in August.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Staff for the Center for Legal Services have moved out of their new building after half of them experienced allergy-like symptoms.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Pedestrians walk past the Center of Legal Services building in South Royalton yesterday. Completed this summer, some employees in the Vermont Law School building have experienced allergy-like symptoms.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

South Royalton — Vermont Law School students, faculty and staff have had to vacate the school’s new Center for Legal Services after more than half of the building’s occupants were sickened by fumes.

The school’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center moved out in mid-October, and its South Royalton Legal Clinic, which provides free legal services, moved to other locations on campus on Thursday, on the orders of James May, the clinic’s director. Both had moved into the fully renovated facility only a couple months earlier.

“The students are basically working wherever they can they can,” May said yesterday.

So far, two rounds of air quality testing have turned up elevated levels of formaldehyde and traces of several volatile organic compounds, both of which could be causing the symptoms experienced by the 30 or so people who use the building. The symptoms ranged from itchy eyes, nose and throat to headaches and difficulty concentrating, and went away when sufferers went home.

Officials at the state’s only law school are disheartened that a new building that’s key to the school’s curriculum and mission is uninhabitable, even temporarily.

“This is a building that people invested a lot of time, energy and money in,” said John Cramer, a spokesman for the law school.

The school spent $3.5 million to acquire, renovate and expand the former Freck’s Store building at 190 Chelsea St. The building sits at the main intersection in South Royalton and is a point of entry to the law school for people seeking legal help from the two VLS-based law firms the structure was designed to house.

Moreover, the law school had consulted with state historic preservation officials and received a $250,000 grant from the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund. For months, the old building was reduced to its exterior walls and is now essentially a new building within the old shape .

It isn’t entirely clear what’s causing the fumes, but the building’s new furniture is a prime suspect.

“It’s really typical in new construction with the increased use of medium density fiberboard,” said Kyle Austin, an environmental associate with Clay Point Associates, an environmental consulting firm based in Williston, Vt., that specializes in indoor air quality and has been hired by the law school. Formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of the fiberboard and also is found in the glues that hold laminate materials to the fiberboard in new office furniture, Austin said yesterday.

Occupants first noticed a strong “new building” smell when they moved in early August. Not long thereafter, a few reported ill effects, leading a staff member to use a home air quality test kit in her office on Aug. 17, according to Cramer. The result of that test, available on Aug. 30, revealed elevated levels of formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the employee’s office. On Sept. 4, Clay Point began an initial round of air quality tests and staff and students were offered alternative workspaces.

In late September, preliminary tests confirmed the rudimentary home test, and by mid-October, the Environmental and Natural Resource Law Clinic moved en masse back to its former home in Debevoise Hall. Several people with the South Royalton Law Clinic also moved. In interviews on Oct. 31 with the Scott Lawson Group, a Concord-based workplace health and safety firm, 19 of the building’s 30 occupants reported health symptoms. Prelimary results from a new round of tests is due Wednesday.

The building was almost entirely empty yesterday. The Barrister’s Book Shop, the campus store, remained open in its space at street level.

“The bookstore doesn’t seem to be affected by it,” said Amy McDowell, the store’s manager. There have been no complaints from customers or from the half-dozen work-study students who staff the store. McDowell said she had some symptoms, but wasn’t certain that they weren’t caused by seasonal allergies.

May, who directs the South Royalton Legal Clinic, was in his second-floor office gathering files. The clinic provided free legal help to 232 clients and worked 185 cases in the fiscal year that ended June 30, May said. About 1,400 people received help from the clinic, which deals with family law, disability, bankruptcy, domestic violence, immigration and prisoners.

Moving out of the building has posed a challenge, May said. He drew a comparison to Tropical Storm Irene, which devastated Royalton last year. Around 250 law students helped with the cleanup.

“We will apply that same level of commitment and determination, and resolve this as a community,” May said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.