An outbreak of black mold at the Kane County morgue will force Coroner Rob Russell to send all dead bodies needing further investigation to DuPage County for the near future, Russell said Friday.
While Russell blames the mold as yet another problem of an obsolete facility, Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen faulted Russell for not taking action to prevent the mold from appearing in the first place.
The situation dates back to November. That's when Russell first reported the failure of a freezer, causing the partial thawing of bodies under investigation. The county board gave Russell money to purchase a new freezer, but Russell lobbied for the ultimate construction of a new morgue.
With the board yet to work that new facility into a new long-term list of capital projects, Russell repaired the freezer rather than replacing it. Russell believed it didn't make sense to buy a new freezer for a building that may be replaced soon if his office could get by with a repaired, but functional, old freezer.
In recent weeks, Lauzen chastised Russell for not moving forward with a new freezer purchase after making it seem like a dire need. So Russell decided to start the purchasing process.
"It's not just unplug a freezer, throw it away, and buy a new one," Russell said. "There's demolition involved to get it out. And we have asbestos in that building. So we slowed everything down."
That's when Russell found the mold on both the seal of the freezer and near the outside. The door for the freezer has a heat mechanism designed to prevent condensation. The mechanism failed, and the resulting condensation caused the mold.
"At this point I don't know if it's behind the walls or anywhere else," Russell said.
He contacted a mold expert about possible health concerns and the Kane County state's attorney's office for consultation on any liability regarding exposure to the public and the coroner staff.
"Based on those discussions I made the call to shut down the morgue a couple days ago," Russell said in an interview.
He had already asked the DuPage County coroner's office about using that facility during any possible construction associated with installing a new freezer. Russell contacted DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen to ask about also using his facility while the morgue would be shut down during the mold remediation process.
Jorgensen agreed, pending the establishment of a fee-for-service agreement he said he will pitch to the DuPage County Board next week.
As Russell provided all this information to the Kane County Board's Judicial and Public Safety Committee Friday morning, he was met with prompt backlash from Lauzen. Russell and Lauzen have engaged in some form of mutual criticism at just about every meeting of the committee since the two took office.
"Six or seven months ago, the county board approved replacements for your cooler and freezer," Lauzen said. "You asked for money. You were given money. It wasn't executed. There wouldn't be any mold if those freezers and coolers were replaced."
Russell responded that, in his opinion, it would be wasting taxpayer money to buy a new freezer so soon after paying $3,500 to fix it. He was still researching the full costs of the new freezer when the mold was discovered.
The DuPage County and Kane County boards will review a fee-for-service agreement for the interim morgue services. No actual per-body or per-day cost estimates were shared with the committee Friday. DuPage County did take possession of its first Kane County body Friday morning after a fatal vehicle crash.