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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 21, 2003

State revising air-system rules

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

The former Aston Waikiki Parkside Hotel at 1850 Ala Moana remains closed over problems with mold and is mired in lawsuits over alleged air-handling-system flaws.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

The state Health Department is drafting new rules to increase accountability for operating, maintaining and constructing air-handling systems in commercial buildings that should improve the quality of air inside some Hawai'i offices, hotels and condominiums.

The rule change has been in the works off and on for a few years, but is nearing completion as the issue has become of greater public interest given recent mold problems that closed two Waikiki hotels since last July.

"This is important," said Russell Takata, program manager for the Health Department's Noise, Radiation & Indoor Air Quality Branch. "We need to get this (rule change) out."

Rules were last modified in the early 1980s, though some requirements date back 20 years before that, he said.

The new rules are in draft form and need to be finalized and made available for public comment at a hearing. Takata said that if no significant changes are necessary, the rules could be adopted by the end of the year.

The proposed rules would largely govern responsibility for installation and operation of new centralized indoor air-handling systems, but also would affect maintenance of existing systems that are a typical cause of excessive indoor mold.

For instance, Takata said the problems recently identified as the cause of mold at the shuttered hotel formerly known as the Aston Waikiki Parkside are too common in older Hawai'i buildings.

At the Parkside, hotel management company Aston Hotels & Resorts said in a lawsuit that the air-handling system was defective, inadequate and undersized, which caused or contributed to mold growth.

Aston, in the suit filed against the hotel's owner LaeRoc Partners, also said deteriorated insulation on chilled water lines connected to the air-handling system led to condensation and trapped moisture behind guest room walls where mold developed.

"That's common — too common," Takata said of the chilled water line condensation. "The big problem nowadays is many of the buildings do not maintain the air-conditioning system ... and that contributes to problems."

Aston did not identify the type or degree of mold found during a preliminary investigation last August and a more thorough investigation in January. But the company insisted on closing the hotel during repair work because of potential health risks.

A LaeRoc official did not return calls seeking comment yesterday or Monday.

LaeRoc bought the hotel in August 2001 from K.S.K. (O'ahu) LP, which LaeRoc is suing along with K.S.K.'s affiliated management company Hawaiiana Resorts Inc. for claims over mold and other building defects.

Jay Bloom, president of Hawaiiana Group Inc., parent company of K.S.K. and Hawaiiana Resorts, declined comment because of the pending litigation.

The Parkside was closed in February and was scheduled to reopen in the middle of this month, but repair work was halted and the hotel remains closed.

At Hilton Hawaiian Village's Kalia Tower, where Hilton Hotels Corp. is spending $55 million to correct mold growth in guest rooms, the presence of Eurotium, also known as Aspergillus, was potentially dangerous, according to Hilton's mold investigators.

Takata said the proposed air quality rules don't address levels of mold.

"That's a real tough one because there are lots of molds and some aren't going to hurt you," he said.

But the proposed rules do change requirements for the amount of fresh air mixed with recirculated air.

Under existing rules, air-handling systems must deliver at least five cubic feet of outside air per minute for general spaces. In some occupational settings, as much as 15 cubic feet of fresh air per minute would be required under new rules.

The rule changes also would transfer responsibility for operation and maintenance of air-handling systems, from mechanical engineers who design a system to contractors that construct the system and building owners that operate and maintain the system.

Takata said under the old rules the mechanical engineer applied for a health permit based on air-handling system design, and contractors and building owners could change the system during construction without Health Department knowledge.

The new rules would require the air-handling system's owner-operator to apply for the permit after the system is installed.

"Right now I can't go after owners and installers," Takata said. "This new rule puts responsibility where it belongs. The owner-operator will be the ultimate responsible party."

Reach Andrew Gomes at agomes@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8065.