Construction woes leave firefighters homeless

Bonita officials say holdup from acid on tile floors

Published by on May 26, 2005

Muriatic acid, more commonly known as hydrochloric acid, is one of the most dangerous chemicals that can be purchased for home use. It is typically used for heavy-duty masonry cleaning, preparation of masonry for painting or sealing and removal of mineral deposits in swimming pools, among other uses.
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This crew of firefighters has a new truck, but no station. They spend their days patrolling Bonita Springs east of Interstate 75, often passing the $4.2 million firehouse that should be their home.

But they can't use it because of a construction mistake: Workers used poisonous muriatic acid to clean the floors, which discolored the tile, ruined the grout and is corroding stainless steel fixtures, officials say.

Firefighters have to use the restrooms at Publix or Subway nearby. The fire district is paying more than $4,100 per month in utility expenses and other costs for a station it can't use.

Attorneys are involved, and no one knows when the firefighters can move into their quarters, which was originally scheduled to open last summer.

Thus is the saga of the 30,000-square-foot fire station on Bonita Grande Drive east of Bonita Springs.

"We're paying for water, sewer and lawn maintenance. Our furniture is in storage. The 12 firefighters who would be in the station are spread out in our four other stations," Fire Chief Dan Gourley lamented.

Also, his headquarters still is in the old station on Old U.S. 41 and not in the new headquarters built to withstand 150 mph winds, Gourley said.

The crew of new fire Engine 228 bought specifically for the new station spends its days on the road east of I-75.

But at night, they can't park the $374,368 truck in the cavernous bays of the new fire

That's because although the station is basically finished and

should have opened in December, there is a dispute about damage that district officials say was done to the tile floor.

The entire floor needs to be ripped up and replaced, Robin Doyle, the fire district attorney, said Wednesday.

Until that's done, the station can't be used, district assistant Chief Roger Shelly said.

He said the fire department could cope with small problems with the new station.

But "we're expecting major items, like the floor, to be right. We don't feel we can move in considering the condition of the floor. You can't move in and then tear the floor out; that's not practical," he said.

Doyle said that officials with the SMRT architectural firm for the project told him the floor needs to be replaced because of damage caused to the tile and grout by muriatic acid used by workers to clean the floor.

Doyle said he sent a letter this week to Jeff Rice, attorney for Compass Construction Inc. of Cape Coral, the general contractor for the project, that the floor needs to be replaced.

If that is the case, "it would be a surprise to me," Rice said Wednesday.

He said he has seen nothing in writing that states the floor should be replaced.

Rice said the architect in December said the building was substantially complete and experts said the tile grout "is fine."

If he gets something in writing stating that the floor needs to be replaced, that claim will be investigated, Rice said.

Compass Construction has hired an engineer to look into such claims, he said. The company has referred all questions to Rice.

"These continuing complaints are being investigated and addressed. Compass is a reputable company" and any verified problems will be corrected, Rice said.

The firm's officials also believe the company should be paid an outstanding balance of $340,000 for the project, he said.

Replacing the floor will cause even further delay to opening the station, Doyle said.

Just how long it will take to replace the floor and how much it will cost still is being determined, Doyle said. The general contractor is responsible for what happens during construction, he said.

Also, stainless steel fixtures and surfaces corroded by the muriatic acid fumes should be replaced, Shelly said. This was recommended by Enviro Home Inc., a firm hired to inspect the building.

A health issue was initially raised when some fire department employees complained of itching and coughing after being in the building during construction inspections, Shelly said.

The Enviro Home report states that tests of the air in the building did not identify any detectable levels of muriatic acid.

Fumes were detected during the Enviro Home inspection in spaces beneath cabinetry throughout the tiled portions of the building, the report states. The fumes continue to cause corrosion, it noted.

The roving firetruck is needed east of I-75 because of all the development there. The exploding growth also is why officials chose the site off Bonita Grande.

Now at night, instead of parking the Engine 228 at the new station, the crew parks it at Station 1 on Old U.S. 41.

Ron Pure, of the local Taxpayers Action Group, said he opposed building the district's new "grandiose" headquarters there in the first place.

But now that it is nearly finished, district officials should have been more aggressive in getting it open instead of letting it stay empty for five months, Pure said.

Indeed, the project has been beset by delays.

Last year's hurricanes postponed the planned opening until December. That month, Gourley and other agency officials walked through the nearly-finished building and noticed 18 discarded muriatic acid bottles.

The bottles found by Gourley have warning labels that state the acid is for exterior use only.

"I personally saw them doing it. That's when I picked up a bottle and started reading the label," Gourley said.

The project has been in legal limbo ever since.