Internal Audit Finds Safety Issues at Interior Department

A new internal "draft final" audit revealed that major safety health and environmental hazards exist throughout the Department of the Interior's headquarters complex.

Commissioned by the department's own Bureau of Land Management, the audit identified 84 findings that posed concern for the safety and health of workers as well as for the environment.

The audit team identified violations of fire safety, electrical and toxic waste regulations of both the federal government and the District of Columbia. Violations range from ungrounded electrical equipment in wet areas to flammable liquids being kept in improperly stored plastic containers.

Workers are at daily risk of being exposed to the chemicals, according to the audit. As one finding notes: "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."

Obstructed exits, open fire doors, missing fire extinguishers and un-maintained sprinkler systems, among other faults, would hamper evacuation in the event of a fire, according to the audit.

Ruch: Interior Building 'Toxic Tinderbox'

"Interior headquarters is a toxic tinderbox just waiting for the right ignition source," said Jeff Ruch executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group for federal and state public employees.

The main building of the Interior Department's complex houses 2,000 employees and is in the process of modernization. According to PEER, employee health complaints have skyrocketed since the beginning of the 10-year renovation project, which is scheduled for completion in 2012.

In a written statement, Interior officials state that corrective actions are being taken and that buildings were safe for department employees.

"The report did not identify any facility-wide deficiencies posing immediate danger to life or health," the statement read. "Correcting the findings, no matter how insignificant, will enhance the safety and health of the occupants."

PEER Suggests Evacuation

PEER, on the other hand, contends that the Interior has not announced or taken any corrective action, despite the dangers posed to employees and visitors. The organization feels the Interior Department should take the following measures to ensure the health and safety of its employees:

  • Immediately evacuate the main Interior building during modernization.
  • Conduct an independent, detailed, employee health and mortality survey as well as a reproductive health survey to determine whether there are higher rates of mortality, cancer, pulmonary disorders and other conditions linked to particulates and chemicals.
  • Restore sick leave taken since modernization and reimburse out-of-pocket medical bills.

"Without intervention by Congress and enforcement agencies, these deplorable conditions undoubtedly would be swept under the rug," Ruch said. "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."

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