WASHINGTON - February 21 - A new internal assessment has found major safety, health and environmental hazards honeycombed throughout the massive U.S. Department of Interior Headquarters Complex, according to a “draft final” audit report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The audit team identified a myriad of potentially life-threatening fire safety, electrical and toxic waste violations of federal and District of Columbia regulations.
The audit was conducted from January 22-25, 2007 by Interior's own Bureau of Land Management and a consultant firm. The final inspection report catalogs a jaw-dropping number of blatant dangers. For example, Interior HQ workers daily risk exposure to a harmful array of chemicals, such as mercury, asbestos and PCBs. One central finding explains several of the observed toxic violations:
“Because no system for the proper disposal of hazardous waste or unneeded hazardous materials is provided to employees, the only options available to employees are to abandon these items in various mechanical spaces or discard them illegally.”
The Interior Complex consists of the Main Interior Building, housing an estimated 2,000 workers, at 1849 C St., NW, and the smaller South Interior Building at 1451 Constitution Ave., NW. Employee health complaints at the 71-year old Main Interior Building have skyrocketed since it began a 10-year renovation project while it remains occupied. As a result of extensive construction activity aggravated by poor ventilation, employees are routinely subjected to chemical vapors, welding fumes and debris dust.
The audit pinpoints cascading safety violations that would multiply human casualties in case of an emergency. For example, fire dangers include ungrounded electrical equipment in wet areas, combustible liquids kept in unsafe places and co-storage of incompatible chemicals (such as oxygen and acetylene tanks). In the event of fire, evacuation would be hampered by obstructed exits, open fire-doors, missing extinguishers, un-maintained sprinklers, poorly constructed exit landings and inadequate exit signs.
“Interior Headquarters is a toxic tinderbox just waiting for the right ignition source,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that detailed departmental safety standards and its “Safety First” motto appear to be routinely ignored. “Regardless of its rhetoric, the reality at Interior is ‘Safety Last.’”
In addition to safety violations, the Interior Complex suffers from multiple environmental deficiencies, including inadequate protection of its drinking water from contamination, improper handling of ozone-destroying refrigerants and unlicensed treatment and disposal of toxic chemicals.
Although the report was delivered to Interior leadership on January 27, 2007, there is no timetable for sharing the findings with employees or making the report public. The audit report is open to internal comment by a small circle of Interior leadership through April 2nd. In the meantime, Interior has neither announced nor undertaken any corrective actions, despite the danger posed to its employees and visitors.
“Without intervention by Congress and enforcement agencies, these deplorable conditions undoubtedly would be swept under the rug,” Ruch said, adding that Interior could be subject to substantial fines if applicable standards were actually enforced. “These serious and long-standing problems cannot be blamed on powerless mid-level officials – this is a failure by top management, starting with the Interior Secretary and his leadership team.”