Washington, DC — The U.S. House of Representatives is directing the Interior Department to immediately address the health problems caused to employees by its massive headquarters building modernization, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Last week’s action by the House constitutes the first congressional recognition of the dangerous working conditions for Interior employees who have been exposed to hazardous fumes, soot and smoke from major construction work taking place adjacent to office areas.
The nearly 70-year old Interior headquarters near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is now being gutted and renovated wing-by-wing. The decade-long project will be completed in 2012. To save relocation costs, however, the neighboring wings of the building remain occupied by hundreds of agency employees and contract workers while demolition and reconstruction continues.
The House action came as it approved the FY 2007 Budget for the Interior Department (HR 5386) and its accompanying Appropriations Committee Report containing language addressing the Interior Headquarters issue. Committee reports, while not binding as law, are indications of legislative intent that are ignored at peril of incurring congressional wrath.
The Report text, inserted at the behest of Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Committee, reads as follows:
“The Committee is concerned by continuing reports from employees of the Department of the Interior about potential health problems created as a result of the ten-year-construction and modernization project for the Department’s main building in Washington, D.C. The Committee requests that the Secretary conduct a review of these concerns on an expedited basis and submit a report to the Committee not later than September 1, 2006. This report is expected to reflect a formal evaluation of the existence of any worker safety problems, a corrective plan for any problems which are documented, and specific responses to each of the recommendations of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health promulgated in their letter to the Department on February 3, 2006. In addition, the Committee encourages the Secretary to establish as soon as possible a formal process through which these issues can be discussed with employees.”
The February report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that Interior was ignoring hundreds of employee health complaints and lacked any reliable lines of communication on safety and health issues. Various attempts by employees, including petitions, to engage Interior leadership about growing reports of rashes, respiratory attacks, pulmonary lesions, headaches, chest pain, eye and throat irritation, fatigue and other ailments have proven unsuccessful.
“Hopefully, the House action will spur the new leadership at Interior to actually address the physical distress to which their Headquarters workers have been subjected,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne is awaiting confirmation as the new Interior Secretary. “An agency that is supposed to be concerned about the environment should also be concerned about the work environment of its own people.”