December 21, 2015 | by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility
Washington, DC — A chemical release inside an office building occupied by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced an evacuation, contaminated the premises for months, and caused long-term health problems for affected employees. Yet, the EPA never provided an adequate explanation to its workers, who enlisted Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to file suit to force release of the reports about the incident. The agency then promoted the official who caused the mess.
On July 3, 2014, Reggie Cheatham, EPA’s then Director of Federal Facilities Restoration, released still unidentified chemicals within his Headquarters office space, which necessitated evacuation of the entire floor.
A large, pungent plume spread throughout the fifth floor of the Potomac Yard North building in Arlington VA, bleeding onto other floors and compromising the building ventilation system.
The fumes triggered health complaints from more than 20 EPA employees, about a quarter of 5th floor occupants. Employees experienced skin rashes, breathing problems, headaches, and sore throats with some of those medical issues continuing today, more than 18 months after the incident. Several remained unable to enter the building without experiencing adverse reactions and were relocated to other buildings.
Testing to determine the exact contaminant applied was not conducted until weeks following the incident – by which time tests results were inconclusive. EPA theorized the incident was caused by Cheatham’s indoor application of an EPA-approved insecticide on an office plant, but was never able to pinpoint the precise cause. After a complaint, the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration issued EPA with a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions. Employees also express consternation that –
- Emergency procedures were not followed. EPA’s Security Command Center was not contacted, nor was a 911 call placed;
- The responsible manager, who was then in charge of remediating pollution in federal facilities, violated both EPA and federal office lease policy by exposing EPA employees to a chemical/pesticide and by failing to follow proper protocol in applying the insecticide; and
- The agency refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by employees seeking records about what happened. PEER took up the request and ultimately had to sue EPA this July to force release of relevant documents. PEER continues to press EPA regarding the completeness of the production provided so far.
“It speaks volumes that EPA’s own employees are subjected to harmful chemical exposures and then kept in the dark about it,” stated PEER Counsel Laura Dumais who filed suit to obtain agency records. “When EPA managers mishandle their own environmental emergencies, this undermines their credibility in making proper and timely decisions to protect the health and safety of all Americans.”
Adding insult to injury in the minds of the affected employees, roughly one year following the incident, this manager was promoted to Office Director in EPA’s Office of Emergency Management. That office’s mission is responding to environmental emergencies caused by – among other things – chemical spills.
“When it comes to safe handling of noxious chemicals, EPA is like the proverbial plumber with the leaky pipes,” added Dumais, pointing to this summer’s major mine spill caused by EPA operations. “Promoting someone who caused an emergency to direct emergency response is indeed curious.”
EPA’s lease on the Potomac Yard North building expires in March 2016. EPA will not be renewing its lease on this building.