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Solution to mold in new courthouse remains elusive; Opening still uncertain as third expert examines $137 million structure

Government officials still don't know what caused a mold and moisture problem in the new federal courthouse, and they still don't know how they will remedy it.

But they promise it will be "completely" eliminated before the $137 million building opens to the public -- sometime, they hope, this fall.

A "building scientist" who specializes in solving such problems has been examining the courthouse in recent days.

He is the third expert hired to look at it since January.

Officials of the U.S. General Services Administration said Thursday that they hope the experts will help them determine a solution within a month.

"Obviously, this issue is something we wish we did not have to deal with, but we're addressing it," Thomas E. King, project manager for the agency, said Thursday during an interview with The Buffalo News. "It's going to be completely addressed before the courthouse is opened. It's not going to be a long-term problem."

The egg-shaped courthouse on Niagara Square is one of the biggest and most expensive public building ever constructed in Western New York. Mold -- even a small amount -- is considered a potential health hazard.

Although King said 98 percent of the building is complete, mold and moisture issues have caused uncertainty about its opening date.

When construction crews broke ground in October 2007, they anticipated it would open by last July. But construction issues have delayed the opening four times.

King said construction crews first noticed small puddles along the walls on several floors of the 10-story building in January, during a time of extreme temperature fluctuations.

Later, small spots of mold were spotted in "about a half-dozen" locations, King said.

Experts are trying to determine how moisture got into the narrow vapor barrier within the walls, which are concrete on the outside and drywall on the inside.

Does the GSA believe the problem was caused by the designers of the building or by the builders?

"We're not going to speculate on that right now," said Renee Miscione, regional spokeswoman for the GSA. "That's one of the reasons we have experts looking at it."

Could the problem be serious enough to require tearing out all the interior drywall walls in the structure and replacing them?

King said he hopes that will not be required. "We're going to find the least-intrusive method to complete the repairs," he said. "We're going to fix the problem permanently, so it won't happen again."

Fortunately, he said, the problems were discovered before courthouse operations and staff members had moved into the structure.

When asked if the building can be completed for $137 million, Miscione said she was not sure.

As of several months ago, the project was still within budget, she said. She said the GSA is certain that, when completed, the building will be one that Western New Yorkers can be proud of.

So far, no name has been chosen for the building, and Congress will make that decision, Miscione said.

"It is not unusual for a federal court building to open without a name," she said. "I've seen situations where it took years, or even decades, before the building was dedicated in someone's name."

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mold in a building can cause a variety of health problems, including aggravation of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, nasal stuffiness and eye irritations.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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