Washington, DC — People working inside the Interior Department Headquarters have been subjected to years of construction fumes, smoke and soot from a multi-year modernization of the massive building while it remains occupied. Despite hundreds of health complaints, agency officials concluded they had no legal obligation to shield employees and contractors from exposure to any substance, except asbestos, according to documents obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
The 10-year reconstruction of the Main Interior Building began in 2002. Due to a lack of funds, the building remains occupied during the work, as hundreds of agency employees and contract workers are moved to adjacent wings as the building is gutted and rebuilt wing-by-wing. The megaproject has been plagued by streams of complaints and reported illnesses.
Failure to properly contain construction smoke, dust and odors has been documented in critical reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Conditions were exacerbated by placing the exhaust outlet from the construction work areas too close to the building’s air intakes, causing smoke, odors and fumes to be re-circulated throughout the building.
In March 2008, the Interior Office of Inspector General issued an audit about serious health and safety deficiencies department-wide. With respect to the Interior HQ modernization, the Inspector General (IG) found that “employees continue to express concerns regarding their health that they attribute to working in the building.” PEER requested that the IG provide details of what it found in its audit about Interior HQ. After months of non-responsiveness, in January 2009 PEER sued the IG for violating the Freedom of Information Act. To resolve the suit, the IG surrendered hundreds of documents, including –
- The General Services Administration (GSA), which oversaw the Interior modernization, concluded that the need for containment of construction fumes applies “only during asbestos abatement.” Moreover, GSA saw nothing wrong with having the building’s air intake vents within 10 feet of the exhaust vents;
- Building inhabitants were exposed to asbestos particles during reconstruction but managers felt they had no legal duty to tell workers they had been exposed; and
- In a Midpoint Briefing on the modernization, the IG found Interior officials are still unsure how to pursue health and safety concerns with GSA.
“The basic problems with doing this modernization on the cheap remain unresolved – the indoor environment is atrocious,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the irony that the Interior HQ is filled with people working to protect our outdoor environment. “Many of the Interior employees who have spoken to us have just given up or taken early retirement.”
In January, reconstruction is scheduled to be completed on the fourth of the building’s six wings. Work will then shift to the wings closest to the main entrance, including areas occupied by political appointees and other top officials.