Washington, DC — A massive, multi-year makeover for the U.S. Department of Interior headquarters building has been exposing agency workers to hazardous fumes, soot and smoke due to a variety of uncorrected breakdowns, according to agency correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite admitting problems, responsible officials have yet to respond to mounting employee complaints of rashes, respiratory attacks, pulmonary lesions, headaches, chest pain, eye and throat irritation, fatigue and other ailments.
Beginning in 2002 and continuing until 2012, the nearly 70-year old Interior headquarters near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is being gutted and renovated wing-by-wing. To save costs, however, the neighboring wings of the building remain occupied by hundreds of agency employees and contract workers while demolition and reconstruction continues in the second of the building’s six main wings. On a daily basis, workers report being subjected to strong chemical odors, noxious smoke and layers of unexplained particles inside their offices and in the garage, cafeteria, stairwells, elevators, hallways and other common areas.
A May 18, 2005 assessment of the project by an indoor air quality expert from the Environmental Protection Agency found that –
- Outflow air vents from the renovation are next to the air intake for the rest of the building, so that the fumes from industrial solvents, paints and other hazardous chemicals that “should be permanently exhausted outdoors” are “allowed to re-enter the corridor outdoor air intake;”
- Air containment of the construction zones does “not appear to be functioning well.” In one instance, “a considerable amount of air from the mechanical room was being recirculated unintentionally into the [office] occupied spaces;” and
- “The air handling system in the newly remodeled 6 th floor wing does not appear to be functioning properly…This condition is also causing unintended pressure imbalances in the affected wing that could allow construction contaminants to migrate into occupied spaces.”
The General Services Administration, which is overseeing the reconstruction project, acknowledged the identified problems in a September 30, 2005 letter that pledged to immediately fix some of the defects but admitted that solutions to other problems may take some time. In the meantime, Interior workers had been exposed to years of unhealthful airborne particles and chemical fumes. For example, on December 10, 2004, fumes from reconstruction work twice tripped building smoke alarms, causing mass evacuation.
In mid-October 2005, a group of unnamed headquarters employees wrote an open letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton pleading with her to “respond to serious, continuing health problems and conditions identified by EPA.” Secretary Norton has yet to reply to the letter.
“Ironically, exposed workers include some of the nation’s top resource protection professionals working in headquarters on important environmental policy,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “If Gale Norton will not take steps to keep her own office building environmentally safe, why should anyone expect her to protect the environment on the vast public lands within her charge?”
PEER is working with Interior employees to force relocation of all offices at risk from the construction work, obtain comprehensive health assessments for all potentially affected workers and seek reimbursement for lost sick leave and medical bills. The group has also opened an e-forum on its web site for Interior employees to post anonymous reports and comments.