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Construction mistake delays McCarran tower opening

An error during construction of McCarran International Airport’s $99 million, 352-foot Federal Aviation Administration tower will delay the opening of the facility by at least a year and could cost millions of dollars to fix.

Workers on the job site say a chemical coating to prevent the spread of toxic fungus was improperly applied and is ineffective. That means workers might have to cut through interior walls of the building to assure that the chemical treatment is properly applied.

Workers familiar with the construction project say the coating was supposed to be placed within walls, ducts and subfloors to curb the spread of a potentially toxic fungus that can cause flulike symptoms.

Instead of applying the coating to dry surfaces, it was placed in flexible ducts that had been lubricated for installation. The chemical substance never adhered to the oily surfaces, and when workers tested the air conditioning and heating system, flakes of the substance were blown from ducts into rooms.

Problems with the installation of the coating were first discovered in January. Representatives of union workers, the contractor and subcontractors and the FAA have begun meeting to assess the best way to address the problem.

Workers on the project feared for their health and conditions were serious enough to warrant a visit from leaders of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists union from Washington to inspect the site.

The treatment in question during construction of the tower was aimed at curbing a potentially toxic fungus: stachybotrys chartarum.

With symptoms as gnarly as the name suggests, this persistent fungus led to the shutdown of several state and local public buildings when it was detected in the Las Vegas Valley in the late 1990s and early 2000.

The fungus, linked to colds, flulike symptoms and headaches, turned up at a rented state employment office in North Las Vegas in 1997 after it was found at the Las Vegas Academy building on Seventh Street. An industrial hygienist who investigated the problem in North Las Vegas determined the fungus was growing on a wallboard under repair.

Illnesses related to the fungus are not contagious. A person cannot “catch (the) symptoms from other sources,” according to the hygienist who probed that incident.

Clark County health officials have said the fungus grows if there is enough water and cellulose to support the organism.

The fungus has as much chance to show up in similar buildings with similar conditions on any side of the city.

In March 2000, fungi samples from UNLV’s Lied Library, while it was under construction, were tested by a university microbiologist who confirmed the presence of stachybotrys.

The FAA has acknowledged the problem at the tower but won’t comment on specific details.

“The FAA has a diligent inspection and oversight process and is closely monitoring the construction of the new Las Vegas air traffic control tower and TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control),” the agency said in a statement issued this week.

“The FAA identified some construction issues and is working with the contractor to address them. The FAA will ensure that any outstanding issues are resolved before accepting the final project from the contractor to ensure our employees and operations will not be affected.”

The tower project is under contract to Chicago-based Walsh Construction and Archer Western Contractors. The company’s Las Vegas office phone was unanswered this week, and calls for comment to the corporate office in Chicago were not returned.

The tower project, a facility designed to give air traffic controllers a better view of air and ground traffic at McCarran, was begun in June 2011.

The project includes the tower and a 52,800-square-foot, four-story TRACON building, a two-level parking garage and a guard station.

The TRACON building will house air traffic control training simulators, administrative offices and equipment and will consolidate the FAA’s presence in Southern Nevada.

The current control tower, built in the early 1980s, is about 200 feet tall, while the base building is 13,740 square feet. The new tower is designed to control air traffic more efficiently at McCarran, the nation’s eighth-busiest airport, which is expected to serve 700,000 flights annually by 2020.

Officials said the tower was expected to be operational by 2015, but the FAA now says it won’t be able to use the facility until late 2016 or early 2017.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Find him on Twitter @RickVelotta. Contact Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308. Find him on Twitter: @KeithRogers2.

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