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Candidates accuse opponent of using legionella for political gain: ‘It just reeks of political hit job’

Posted at 10:57 PM, Oct 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-01 11:32:39-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- On the offensive, the chair and vice chair of Chesterfield's School Board put the county's health director on the hot seat at a meeting back on October 7th after Dr. Alexander Samuel updated the board on the investigation into an outbreak of legionnaires' disease in the county.

"I'm trying to make sure we are not evading the question," Vice Chair Javaid Siddiqi said to Dr. Samuel at one point. "Dr. Samuel, you need to afford us some transparency."

Things got so tense one of the other board members felt the need to apologize to Samuel.

"I’m sorry for how you have been talked to this evening," board member Carrie Coyner said. "Because we wouldn't be here tonight if our cooling towers had been cleaned."

But Siddiqi told CBS 6 he makes no apologies.

"Do you think you treated him fairly?" Hipolit asked.

Leslie Haley and Javaid Siddiqi

Leslie Haley and Javaid Siddiqi

"I feel like my questions were fair. I think people in my community, what I have heard at doors, or meet and greets, soccer fields, is are schools safe?" Siddiqi responded. "I felt like that was a fair question, and at times I felt like he was being evasive, and I understand the pressure he's under."

But, the chair of the Chesterfield Board of Supervisors said Siddiqi was out of line, and pointing fingers to deflect from the school system's maintenance failures.

Especially, after a CDC official called school cooling towers some of the worst they had ever seen.

"This aspect of challenging the health department, challenging the county, challenging what the CDC said, challenging our risk management or audit function, the responsibility lies with them that if they had been properly cleaning their cooling towers this issue would never have become a story at all," Haley said.

Siddiqi is now challenging Leslie Haley for her seat on the board.

And, he claims his opponent took advantage of a bad situation to make herself look better.

"I think if I was not challenging her this is not the same political story," Siddiqi said. "I'm 100 percent confident."

Chesterfield County Administration Building

Chesterfield County Administration Building

With revelations that a cooling tower at the county administration building tested positive for the strain of legionella bacteria most likely to cause legionnaires' disease, Siddiqi said one thought came to mind.

"It just reeks of a political hit job," Siddiqi said.

He said he's troubled that the county, which maintains its own cooling towers, never formally announced the positive test result to the public when they received it back in mid-August.

Around the same time, the county raised concerns about the school system after towers at seven schools tested positive for various strains of legionella.

Cooling towers at these seven schools tested positive for various strains of legionella.

Cooling towers at these seven schools tested positive for various strains of legionella.

Siddiqi highlighted the fact that the county even put out a press release on Aug. 2 alerting the public to legionella at Greenfield Elementary before the school system did.

Emails obtained by CBS 6 through a FOIA filed with the county show the Deputy Superintendent for Chesterfield Schools, Thomas Taylor, was "furious" with the county and told the Chief Operating Officer, Nita Mensia-Joseph, she should be too.

"To find out that she has been sitting on, and covered up for two months, this same situation in the county administration building is very difficult for me to reconcile," Siddiqi said.

But, Haley said that is simply not true.

"When did you know about that test result?" Hipolit asked Haley.

"I can't tell you exactly when I knew because it was part of the conversation," Haley replied.

Picture of cooling tower at Cosby High School from 2017 WCI report.

She argued that the county told the public about the Greenfield test because the school system was dragging its feet.

And she said the amount of bacteria in a well maintained county cooling tower was so low, it paled in comparison with the levels in the school cooling towers.

"What can you say to people who might wonder about why this wasn't brought to the attention of the public outside of a posting on the website?" Hipolit asked.

"When that came to light, and then all of the records started to be pulled, the real concern was not -- 'Gee we had a cooling tower that tested positive.' Because as we know, in about 30 percent of the cases, even with routine maintenance on any given point in time with really bad humidity or something a cooling tower could test positive for a negligible level of legionella," Haley said. "It's the fact that the school system had for several years neglected all maintenance as far as cleaning."

CBS 6 is still working to learn more about who knew what when with regards to the conditions of school cooling towers. However, the school system wants to charge CBS 6 more than $10,000 for a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for emails.

Watch for Problem Solvers Investigations on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Click here for more of our investigations or to submit a tip to the Problem Solvers.