Audit Finds Interior Department Falling Short on Safety Measures

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

A new report warns that traveling through Yosemite National Park's 74-year-old tunnel to see the views of its iconic granite peaks might literally take your breath away.

Carbon monoxide can accumulate to hazardous levels in the busy summer months because aging tunnel exhaust fans don't work properly. Some experts also fear that a disastrous fire could ignite.

Yosemite's Wawona Tunnel is just one of several dozen safety hazards in dire need of repair, according to the report by the Interior Department's inspector general, which found risky conditions at work sites, schools, dams and four popular national parks run by Interior. Auditors also said they found a pattern of department managers repeatedly putting off fixes for long-standing safety problems that threatened both the public and employees.

"We believe the Department must take immediate steps to prevent existing hazards from escalating into deadly ones," according to the report by Inspector General Earl E. Devaney, which was released late last month.

The audit, requested by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, found shoddy conditions at 13 schools that investigators spot-checked among 184 the agency runs for American Indian children on tribal reservations. Nearly 60 dams managed by Interior were found to be at high risk of giving way or overflowing.

Interior employees themselves were often at greatest risk, the report said. Staff members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey continued to work in a condemned fish hatchery near Jackson, Wyo., until the auditors warned Kempthorne's office in 2007. The building had been closed to the public since 2000 because of dangerous structural flaws, but employees continued to use some of the facility to restock endangered trout.

Interior employees' accident rates were among the highest in the federal government, with a rate of 6.27 out of every 100 employees reporting accidents on the job in fiscal 2006. That same year, the department paid $58 million in accident claims and lost 150,000 days of employees' work.

The audit said the agency has far too few safety employees for its mission and size, and it faulted the agency for an accident-tracking system that was missing information about the cause of one-fourth of reported incidents.

Kempthorne's spokeswoman, Tina Kreisher, said the secretary sought out the bad news on safety problems so he could fix them.

"He has made a personal commitment to the employees to improve health and safety agencywide," she said. "When this report came out, the secretary deputized a deputy secretary to immediately create a task force to conduct an expedited review of its findings and recommendations."

The auditors had heightened concerns about three problems they noticed early on: the Wawona Tunnel, the schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education and the fish hatchery. In the middle of the audit, they urged Kempthorne to address them quickly.

"I am alarmed at the potential for a catastrophic event of massive and deadly proportions in the Wawona Tunnel," one National Park Service official wrote anonymously in a safety survey.

Auditors also determined that Yellowstone National Park water systems are significantly deteriorating and that the now-closed Dinosaur National Monument was "literally falling apart" atop shifting soil in Colorado, putting irreplaceable fossils at risk.

At Grand Teton National Park, an office headquarters building located on an earthquake fault is not built to seismic codes. A maintenance building there is plagued by unhealthy conditions and has needed repair for at least 10 years, but won't be fixed for another six.

Interior arranged for $1.5 million in federal highway contracts to repair the tunnel's ventilation and electrical systems. The work is expected to be completed by the end of this summer, Kreisher said. The Bureau of Indian Affairs inspected all tribal reservation schools reviewed in the audit and began making lists of repairs, she said. Employees were barred from the hatchery buildings.

Kempthorne also appointed James E. Cason, an assistant secretary, to take charge of safety for the agency after Devaney said the issue demanded higher-level attention. Previously, Deputy Assistant Secretary Paul Hoffman, a former congressional aide to Vice President Cheney, had been the most senior agency official in charge of safety.

In 2004, Hoffman upheld decisions to remove U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers from her job after she publicly raised concerns about her force's inability to safely monitor federal parkland.

"This audit makes a strong case for firing Hoffman tomorrow and bringing in professional managers for a troubled agency struggling through the last months of this administration," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

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