Washington, DC — Weeks after claiming that persistent poor indoor air quality practices in the massive Interior Department headquarters building reconstruction had been remedied, building occupants are still being exposed to harmful chemical fumes, smoke and dust, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nor does the contractor yet have a plan in place to protect employees who have suffered for years from nausea, asthma attacks and other ailments.
A May 24, 2007 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found the reconstruction of the 70-year old Main Interior Building near the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is “intentionally operating” to expose “adjacent occupied areas” to hazardous pollutants. The key problem is the inability to maintain negative air pressure so as to prevent construction fumes from filtering out into surrounding offices and into the building’s ventilation system.
In the days following release of the NIOSH report by PEER, Interior officials issued various public statements that the deficiencies had already been addressed, including that new “improved construction barriers…and revised work practices…act as a system to prevent dust and odor migration to the maximum extent possible.” Yet, on June 13, 2007, the General Services Administration project manager for the Interior work, R.C. “Skip” Vaughn, wrote to the general contractor about its inability to meet minimum health and safety standards, most prominently –
“Negative pressurization (‘negative air’): While fans were installed to try and mechanically exhaust more air than was being mechanically drawn into the construction spaces…these do not appear to be providing enough exhaust to provide negative air within the construction spaces…Please provide a plan on how [the contractor] intends to maximize success for achieving negative pressure in the construction space and how [the contractor] intends to measure the pressure to ensure they are achieving negative air.”
“The modernization project management has been flat out lying to the workers and making a mockery of recent promises to make employee health a top priority and end the ‘business-as-usual’ approach at Interior,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, referring to a May 22, 2007 speech to an all-hands staff meeting by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne. “Regardless of what happens tomorrow, it is now indisputable that Interior employees and contractors have been breathing hazardous fumes for years.”
In order to cut costs in its decade-long HQ modernization, slated to last until 2012, Interior kept the building occupied, including workplaces next door to reconstruction work, rather than vacating affected areas as other agencies do. As a consequence, the project has been plagued with “a long history of tenant complaints about indoor air quality,” in the words of the Skip Vaughn letter.
“This is just the latest in a series of reports from NIOSH, EPA and even Interior’s own safety experts that this headquarters make-over has been a horror show,” Ruch added, noting that the Interior Office of Inspector General is the latest agency to start investigating health and safety problems but has announced no date for its report. “Secretary Kempthorne has an opportunity to redeem his rhetoric by becoming personally involved to make sure this work is done safely and competently.”