Washington, DC — The federal Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) will conduct inspections into numerous safety violations reported at the U.S. Department of Interior Headquarters complex unless it receives proof this week that hazards have been removed, according to a document released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The violations cited by OSHA in its February 27 notice to Interior principally involve fire safety.
The violations are among the major safety, health and environmental hazards found throughout the two-building Washington D.C. office complex by an internal Interior audit. Despite the fact that the audit was conducted in late January and PEER provided a copy to reporters in mid-February, Interior is still refusing to release the audit in response to requests from reporters, other agencies and its own employees.
“Like the long-standing conditions at Walter Reed, corrective action will not take place at Interior until these problems have been fully exposed to the light of day,” stated PEER Senior counsel Paula Dinerstein. “Just as Defense Secretary Robert Gates took direct action at Walter Reed, the Interior Secretary needs to do his job by holding top management accountable.”
The notice informs Interior that OSHA has received complaints concerning—
- Unsafe storage of combustible chemicals, such as gasoline, flammable aerosols, paints and sealers;
- “Underground electrical equipment in wet areas”; and
- Jammed fire exit doors and missing exit signs.
The OSHA letter, signed by Area Director Leonard M. Moore, Jr., states “If we do not receive a response from you by March 7, 2007 indicating that appropriate action has been taken or that no hazard exists and why, an OSHA inspection will be conducted.” (Emphasis in original)
The OSHA letter was directed to Deputy Assistant Interior Secretary Paul Hoffman, a controversial former Dick Cheney aide who was transferred over to the administrative side of the agency after a disastrous five years overseeing the National Park Service. It was Hoffman who ordered the firing of U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers in 2004 for truthfully answering questions from reporters. In 2006, Hoffman oversaw a much criticized attempted rewrite of Park Service policies that was ultimately repudiated by incoming Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
PEER has received multiple reports that, rather than addressing potentially life-threatening health and safety issues, Hoffman is spearheading a “witch hunt” to find who leaked the audit report.
“Alerting the public and the proper authorities to safety hazards is legally protected activity under both the Whistleblower Protection Act as well as the OSHA statute itself,” Dinerstein added, noting that the OSHA also warns Hoffman against taking retaliatory action. “Unfortunately, Paul Hoffman appears to typify the dysfunctional defensive management at Interior that allowed these problems to fester unnecessarily.”