EPA headquarters contaminated with lead, likely from Secret Service shooting range

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Days before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalizes strict new regulations for dealing with toxic lead in residential homes, the agency is quietly cleaning up a dangerous lead contamination at its own headquarters.

Dust samples recently taken from EPA’s Ariel Rios headquarters building were in many cases much higher than federal government limits for commercial buildings, documents show.

In one case, a dust sample showed lead levels 92,500 percent higher than the equivalent regulatory standard to which EPA says it is comparing results. That sample was taken from the floor of a state-of-the-art control center for responding to emergency outbreaks of toxic substances such as anthrax.

Lead is a toxic heavy metal known to cause permanent brain damage in children. Exposure to pregnant women can transfer to their unborn children. Though exposure to children is lead’s most dangerous impact, adults suffer neurological damage at high exposure levels. EPA says lead is a “probable” carcinogen.

An EPA spokeswoman referred questions to the General Services Administration (GSA), which owns EPA’s headquarters building and is running cleanup efforts. But privately, top EPA officials said the building’s occupants are safe, pointing to air samples that had lower lead levels than the dust sample. The GSA did not reply to a request for comment.

The emergency control center — which had the highest lead readings of anywhere in the building — is across the hall from a Secret Service shooting range in the basement of Ariel Rios that is suspected to be the cause of the outbreak.

Most bullets are made of lead, and commercial shooting ranges employ sophisticated air-filtering systems to control contamination.

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EPA has moved employees from contaminated offices and GSA is cleaning contaminated offices and pursuing more testing.

The way in which EPA and GSA have conducted the ongoing cleanup has outraged some EPA employees who fear for their safety and know, from their own work setting the rules the rest of us live by, how dangerous the toxic metal can be.

“I’m shocked,” said John O’Grady, treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFL-CIO) council that represents most EPA employees. “We’re the EPA — who’s supposed to be the agency that regulates lead.
A key complaint is that GSA instructed employees in contaminated offices to pack up their belongings so the offices could be cleaned. Critics say those belongings were likely contaminated, too.”

“Apparently they were asking people to move that had contamination on their workspace and they had those people package up the material themselves. So in other words, they were exposing themselves and others to the lead dust that had been defined as being there,” O’Grady said.

Two EPA officials said privately that testing indicated employees’ belongings were unlikely to be contaminated. “We were advised that it was very unlikely that [the belongings] were going to have elevated levels,” one source said.

The officials also noted that no air samples taken by GSA indicated levels above an “action level” set by the Occupational Safety and Health Standards agency that sets federal rules on workplace safety.

However, in contrast to EPA, the Postal Service in early March closed the Ben Franklin Post Office, which is housed in the first floor of Ariel Rios building directly above the shooting range. A passport office on the same floor also closed.

“If it was that bad that the post office left the building, then why were EPA employees still there?” O’Grady said.

The two EPA officials said privately that heavy equipment in the post office may have caused higher levels than EPA offices on the same floor.

EPA employees from the emergency control center that had the highest lead readings were relocated to the first floor of the Ariel Rios building but have since been moved back after their offices were cleaned up. Other offices in the basement are still being cleaned and employees will be moved back sometime next month.

Besides their own safety, EPA employees are concerned about janitors who have cleaned EPA offices for years. Chimes, the contractor that cleans the Ariel Rios building, calls itself “one of the nation’s largest employers of people with severe disabilities” and many of the janitors in EPA’s headquarters building are mentally disabled.

A dust sample taken Feb. 27 before any cleanup was done showed lead levels in a “janitor’s closet” at 20,750 percent higher than the regulatory standard EPA says it is comparing the samples to — its “Residential Lead Health Standards” regulation.

The janitors’ office is on the basement floor where the shooting range is and lead levels were highest, O’Grady said. A Chimes spokesman did not return a call for comment.

The two EPA officials said privately they pushed GSA to protect the janitors and successfully convinced them to “finally” move their offices out of the basement, where nearby offices are currently being cleaned by certified lead abatement experts.

EPA assistant administrator Craig Hooks is in charge of the agency’s facilities. In March 2 memo obtained by The Daily Caller, Hooks said, “EPA recently received notification from [GSA] that, as a follow up to an evaluation of the U. S. Secret Service’s firing range, lead dust was detected in the basement of Ariel Rios North. Lead dust was found in a number of surface samples, as well as above the ceiling tiles in the building infrastructure. GSA did not find lead in any of the air samples taken in the area.

“At this time, while GSA believes the most probable source of the lead is from the firing range, other potential sources of lead dust are currently being assessed. The firing range is closed and will remain that way until all cleanup activities are completed and the source of the problem has been eliminated and/or corrected,” Hooks said.

The memo also noted that as a precaution, Hooks had ordered ceiling tiles not be disturbed while sampling and cleanup is ongoing. Many dust samples taken above ceiling tiles showed higher lead levels than those taken in work areas.

A question-and-answer document posted on EPA’s internal Web site and last updated March 18 read, “All air samples have tested well below the OSHA action level of 30 micrograms per cubic meter.” The OSHA action level is the amount of lead beyond which federal regulations require actions to reduce exposure levels for workers.

The air samples are lower than the OSHA-set standard, but much higher than a regulatory standard set by the Bush EPA in 2008 for lead in outdoor air, which is .15 micrograms per cubic meter.

Prior to cleanup, several offices are described in internal EPA documents as being less than 18 micrograms per cubic meter. Others are listed in the teens as well. Air samples at 15 micrograms per cubic meter would be 100 times higher than the standard EPA requires for outdoor air in the vicinity of major industrial facilities such as lead smelters.

The Hooks memo said elevated dust samples have been found, but that employees were moved to another location everywhere those levels were beyond a certain threshold. It also offered information for EPA employees interested in having their office sampled or their blood tested for elevated blood levels.

The two EPA officials said about 40 employees have had their blood levels tested and none showed elevated levels.

The officials said EPA has pushed GSA “pretty hard” to clean up the lead contamination both more quickly and to more stringent levels. For instance, EPA demanded GSA clean offices to a dust level of 40 micrograms per square foot. GSA, because of cost considerations, had sought to clean up to 200 micrograms per square foot, the officials say. 200 micrograms per square foot is an OSHA-set level for industrial workplaces.

Besides the conflict with GSA, the officials said EPA was angry to learn the Secret Service initially found high lead levels at its shooting range in October – but then waited until early February to tell GSA, which quickly informed EPA of the problem.

The Secret Service did not return a call for comment by press time.

The EPA officials said they have backed off their initial demand that the Secret Service close the shooting range permanently, and will instead require a full briefing on the operating procedures for its ventilation system and that Secret Service officers use “green” bullets that aren’t made of lead.

The officials also cautioned that lead paint and other factors may be driving many of the high air and dust samples, not just the shooting range.

The lead cleanup comes at a sensitive time for EPA, which is poised to finalize new restrictions on the construction industry for renovation projects in residential homes.

The new rules, which become final April 22 – Earth Day – have drawn the ire of homebuilders who claim the strict work practices required by the rule will be too onerous.

EPA agreed to set the new regulation after environmentalist group Sierra Club threatened legal action over its previous standards. When EPA agreed to the activists’ demands in October, the agency said “recent epidemiological studies indicate that the current hazard standards [for lead] may not be sufficiently protective.”

EPA is also gathering information to extend the stricter rules to commercial buildings, including office buildings.

Contact Jonathan by e-mail.

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