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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Inquiry Begins of EPA's Role in Senate Offices' Reopening

Health: The agency's watchdog will look into concerns about the chemical smell pervading the Hart building.

January 24, 2002|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Citing a "potential serious health risk," the Environmental Protection Agency's internal watchdog launched an investigation Wednesday into whether the EPA erred in allowing the Hart Senate Office Building to reopen.

The focus of the inquiry is not the anthrax that contaminated the building last fall but the chlorine dioxide, the chemical used to kill the anthrax, said Robert J. Martin, the EPA's independent ombudsman.

The building, which houses the office suites of 50 U.S. senators, reopened Tuesday after three months of anthrax decontamination. But a strong bleach-like smell hung heavy in the air, and soon after reentering, several staff members said they had minor headaches and sore throats. Two anonymous callers contacted Martin's office with concerns about the chemical smell that was the talk of the beleaguered building, said Hugh B. Kaufman, chief investigator for the ombudsman's office.

In a memorandum to EPA officials, Martin said that "tremendous quantities" of chlorine dioxide gas used on at least three occasions were "far in excess of lethal doses . . . [and] could be in the air for a significant period of time."

The inquiry is the second opened by the ombudsman regarding the agency's performance in connection with the terrorist attacks. Already under review is EPA Administrator Christie Whitman's assurance that there were no dangerous levels of hazardous materials inside buildings around lower Manhattan that were showered with asbestos when the World Trade Center towers fell.

"In investigating the ground zero case, we found EPA giving people in apartments and offices in that area the assurance that everything was safe, but they never took any samples," Kaufman said. "We're concerned they did the same thing here in the Hart building. And if they didn't, we want to see the numbers."

But EPA spokesman Joe Martyak said the agency has measured chlorine dioxide levels "numerous times" since the beginning of the year and has detected none. The EPA used an instrument that records traces as low as 0.1 part per billion, well below federal safety standards; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets as acceptable 100 parts per billion, eight hours a day for a lifetime.

"Whatever is going on at the Hart building, it is not the chlorine dioxide," Martyak said.

The Hart building was declared "safe and clean" when it reopened its doors, three months after a letter laced with finely milled anthrax arrived in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Displaced workers eagerly returned to their cubicles Tuesday, but the chemical smell was hard to miss. Soon, staff members were reporting minor symptoms. About half a dozen visited the Capitol's first aid office, the Office of the Attending Physician said, but Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police would not disclose their complaints, citing patient confidentiality.

Around the Hart building, workers talked about the sudden onset of curious, unexplained symptoms.

"I've talked to a couple of colleagues who are feeling pretty poor," said a Republican Senate aide who requested anonymity. "One woman said every time she gets up from her chair she gets dizzy. Another woman's eyes were watering--and she doesn't wear contacts."

Other aides dismissed the maladies as a cold, the flu or an active imagination.

"We had a few people who had odd minor ailments, but there have been bad colds going around," said Dan Kunsman, press secretary to Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.). "It wasn't anything to send anybody home. We talked about it and frankly thought it was in our heads."

The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have held briefings this week for Hart staffers, assuring them that the building was safe in terms of exposure to anthrax or chlorine dioxide. Whitman herself met with senators Wednesday morning.

Although health officials never went as far as to declare the million-square-foot building "risk free," several who attended the meetings said they felt assured it was safe to go in.

The odor was still detectable Wednesday, though less than when the doors first opened. "It's not the repugnant odor that we smelled when we first walked in the building," Kunsman said.

Specifically, the ombudsman has asked the EPA to explain what actions were taken to assure that no contaminants were present in the air before the building's reopening, particularly chlorine dioxide and the hydrochloric acid it can create when mixed with water.

He said his office advised Whitman and EPA managers in November that a nonchemical treatment for anthrax would be "less expensive, more effective and would not create the health risks inherent in use of chlorine dioxide."

Martin, who has held the post since 1992, is charged with responding to public complaints and has been an outspoken critic of some of the agency's decisions, including those rendered during the Clinton administration.

Whitman attempted to move him to the EPA's Inspector General's Office last fall, which Martin said would have effectively abolished the authority of the congressionally established post. A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order this month, blocking the move until a hearing can be held.

Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa welcomed the ombudsman's interest. "The taxpayers are paying for a safe building for staff and visitors. They deserve a good return on their investment."

Grassley has questioned the $14 million the EPA spent through December on the Hart cleanup, and has asked the agency and the Senate sergeant at arms for a detailed accounting by Friday.

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