Two Men Dead from Gas Leaks at S.C. Public Housing Complex; Now Critics Demand Action from HUD Who Lack Requirements for Detectors 

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The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is facing pressure to tighten federal carbon monoxide protections after two residents at a Columbia, S.C., public housing complex died as a result of the deadly gas.

On Jan. 17, the bodies of Derrick Caldwell Roper, 30, and Calvin Witherspoon Jr., 61, were discovered dead in separate units at the Allen Benedict Court Apartments where they lived, according to The State. The Richland County coroner determined that both men had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide
Calvin Witherspoon (left) and Derrick Roper both died of carbon monoxide poisoning, a coroner determined. (Photos: NBC News/courtesy of Witherspoon family,Roper family)

Public safety officials found additional gas leaks at the complex later that night, prompting an evacuation of the entire complex.

“Open up, it’s the fire chief!” resident KinTerra Johnson recalled of the night she and her three children, ages 8, 5 and 3 years old, were ordered out of their unit by firefighters on a cold January day at 3 a.m.

“The kids were scared to see the guys in the Hazmat suits — they looked like monsters to them,” Johnson, 27, told NBC News.

According to Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, an inspection of the nearly 80-year-old complex — which is home to more than 400 residents, most of them African-American — found that 63 units had high levels of both carbon monoxide and natural gas. Residents had reported smelling gas at the apartments before, Jenkins added.

What’s worse, inspectors found missing and malfunctioning alarms in several of the units,  as well as damaged ceilings, exposed wires, a roach infestation and a “high volume of rodent droppings,” a letter from the fire department obtained by NBC News revealed. Also, none of the apartments were equipped with carbon monoxide detectors.

At acute levels, the colorless, odorless and tasteless gas is known to cause irreversible brain damage, as well as damage to other vital tissues and organs, loss of consciousness and even death when exposure is high.

Federal law requires that all rental housing subsidized through HUD have smoke detectors. The federal government doesn’t have the same condition for carbon monoxide detectors, however. According to an NBC News investigation, there have been 11 carbon monoxide-related deaths in HUD housing since 2003. Now, public health advocates and experts are urging the agency to take action.

HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan called the Allen Benedict deaths “tragic” and said the agency is mulling new requirements related to carbon monoxide. However, he did not appreciate critics putting all the blame on HUD for the recent deaths.

“It is easier to pin the tail on the federal donkey than to hold the actual housing providers accountable for what goes on in the buildings,” Sullivan said.

The Columbia Housing Authority, which owns the Allen Benedict apartments, holds primary responsibility for making sure the complex is up to state code, which requires carbon monoxide detectors in bedrooms with fuel-fired appliances. Authority director Gil Walker claimed he was unaware of the local law. Cynthia Hardy, a spokeswoman for the authority, added that the housing authority had worked “in partnership with HUD,” which consistently gave the Allen Benedict apartments high marks for health and safety.

On its last inspection in September 2017, HUD only found a small number of violations at the property and gave the complex a high score of 86 points out of 100, according to NBC News. There were no deductions for the lack of carbon monoxide detectors because they were’t required in the first place.

“HUD came into our units in 2017 and carbon monoxide detectors were never mentioned,” Walker, who announced his retirement in the wake of the deaths, told a commissioner in January. “It was never mentioned. I found out about it a couple of weeks ago that a new law was passed in 2015, but I don’t know how good the information got out to individuals.”

For as little as $20, battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors could help save lives. Those who can’t afford that, however, are forced to rely on routine inspections by public health officials. The problem is that Columbia officials do not perform regular health and safety inspections of public housing, which is funded by the government. Therefore, the task is left up to HUD, which, again, doesn’t require the detectors.

Health advocates say this lack of responsibility puts public housing residents at increased risk for carbon monoxide poisoning, which is largely caused by broken appliances and inadequate ventilation. According to the NBC report, “Allen Benedict is among thousands of decrepit, hazardous HUD properties with a backlog of sorely needed maintenance; some 10,000 units are lost every year due to disrepair.”

The crumbling property was already slated to be demolished and redeveloped, but a lack of funds stifled the project.

Emily Benfer, a visiting law professor at Columbia University, argued that HUD “should be setting the gold standard.”

“[They] should be leading the charge,” Benfer, who studies environmental health hazards, told NBC News. “But they are negligent, and they are putting people in danger.”

The cause of the January incident remains under investigation.

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