Sound conditions at a closed men’s shelter in Rockville were “well below” levels likely to cause health problems, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has found.
But it’s still unclear whether employees and residents will return to the site after a series of vibrations from the Gude landfill next door prompted evacuations earlier this year.
“I can say that we’ll need an assurance that what happened before will not happen again in order for us to feel safe to return,” said Susie Sinclair-Smith, the CEO of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless.
The nonprofit operates the shelter on East Gude Drive for the county. MCCH has a contract to provide housing to roughly 750 men a year at two sites on county-owned property, Sinclair-Smith said. Since the shelter was closed, residents have relocated to a nearby overflow facility used to house additional men during cold weather months.
The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on whether it plans to move employees and residents back to the Rockville site.
“We (the County) are still reviewing the report and won’t be commenting until we’ve had a chance for a thorough review,” spokeswoman Mary Anderson wrote in an email on Thursday.
Problems at the shelter began in late 2018, when employees at the administrative building began noticing vibrations coming from the county’s Gude landfill. By January 2019, the administrative building was shaking on a near-daily basis, Sinclair-Smith said, and staff members noticed “significantly uncomfortable” amounts of air pressure throughout the week.
County staff members attributed the complaints to two flares used to burn off excess methane gas coming from the landfill. The flares had been used at the site for years, Environmental Protection Director Adam Ortiz wrote in a text message, but often vibrated when the system was shut off and turned back on again.
“It occurs after they are turned off because of repairs or for a power outage,” Ortiz wrote. “When they turn back on, they vibrate, just like starting an old car or a cold engine.”
On Feb. 4, the noise and vibrations were unusually loud. Sinclair-Smith said an administrative staff member went to the hospital for “vertigo so bad, she was holding onto her hospital bed.” Other employees reported ongoing hearing loss, tinnitus, and lung problems.
Six workers filed compensation claims, which are being handled by the nonprofit’s private insurance company, Sinclair-Smith said.
MCCH evacuated the administrative building that day, though services continued at the men’s shelter on the site. The NIOSH report noted that the area had received heavy rain before the Feb. 4 incident, which can increase the amount of methane released by the landfill and require more air intake through the flares.
“It was likely that … the flare system did not respond and adjust quickly enough to the changing air requirements,” the report states. “An imbalance in the air-to-methane gas ratio occurred, leading to an increase in combustion instability and combustion roar. These conditions led to a subsequent increase in noise.”
A similar incident occurred at the men’s shelter on May 4, Sinclair-Smith said. One resident was hospitalized, and other staff members and clients reported feeling ill. The shelter was evacuated that day.
The NIOSH report concluded that the flares emitted low-frequency noise — also known as infrasound — that was most noticeable in the administrative building closest to the landfill.
The volume of the noise was below the decibel level ruled unsafe by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, the only industry group to issue recommended limits on infrasound exposure, according to the report.
But the federal agency did not collect sound samples during the likely combustion roar in February and May, and the baseline noise emitted by the flares exceeded German, Dutch, and Polish guidelines on infrasound exposure.
The agency didn’t issue conclusive findings on whether the reported illnesses could be attributed to the flares. But it recommended that the county reduce turbulence and noise coming from the landfill and “take employees’ perceptions of risk into serious consideration” when deciding whether to reopen the evacuated facility.
Ortiz wrote that the county was “still proceeding with the modernization of the facility” and working to upgrade the machinery. He did not say when the work was expected to be complete.
The 65 men at the shelter were moved to an overflow location on Crabbs Branch Way, where they’ve remained for the last six months.
But the overflow shelter was designed for overnight stays during cold weather months, not the more intensive services provided to the nonprofit’s year-round residents — a more vulnerable group of men who receive case management, mental health, and primary care services, Sinclair-Smith said.
“It’s used to provide basic shelter services, but it doesn’t even have a dining room,” she added. The county had to purchase tents where the men could eat their meals, but Sinclair-Smith said the makeshift accommodations are becoming more of an issue as the weather grows colder.
Employees at the nonprofit are also concerned that clients will be stuck at the overflow location into the spring and summer if the county can’t make improvements to the Gude landfill.
“We’re becoming very concerned,” Sinclair-Smith said. “We’re not prepared to move back to the primary shelter [on East Gude Drive] until we get an assurance from the county that the same level of vibration won’t happen again. We can’t expose people to that risk. But at the same time, the overflow facility is not designed for the levels of service we typically provide.”
The closure is also affecting county procedures during the cold-weather emergency season, which begins on Nov. 1. In a phone interview on Tuesday, Anderson said local shelters handle a greater number of men seeking temporary accommodations to escape the cold.
This year, the county is directing men to call a 24-hour hotline at 240-907-2688 to learn where shelter will be available. MCCH and the county worked with the city of Rockville to borrow a municipal office building for shelter during cold weather months, but the facility won’t be open until Monday and won’t accept new clients until Wednesday.
That’s a concern for some employees at the nonprofit, who said the county’s only additional men’s shelter, in Silver Spring, can only handle 40 clients. But Anderson said the county was committed to finding ways to shelter men until the new space is available.
“We have a work group that’s in constant touch,” she said. “If the situation arose where there were more men than the [Silver Spring] shelter could house, there would be a contingency.”