Interior to HQ Employees: Let Them Breathe Fumes

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337
Email: info@peer.org

Interior to HQ Employees: Let Them Breathe Fumes

Interior Saw No Legal Obligation to Shield Workers from Years of Noxious Vapors

WASHINGTON -  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.

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See the determination that Interior employees could be subjected to anything except asbestos

Look at conclusion that air intake can be next to construction exhaust

Examine EPA conclusions about indoor air quality problems in DOI HQ

Read about decision not to tell employees they were exposed to asbestos

View excerpts from DOI Modernization Midpoint Briefing

Trace history of health and safety problems with DOI Modernization

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Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.

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