Asbestos, water leaks among Fairfax building's hazards

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fairfax County's aging public safety headquarters building is quickly becoming a hazard for its employees and the public because of its asbestos-coated ceiling and walls and frequent water leaks, according to internal government documents and interviews with officials, but the cash-strapped county lacks the money and available space to move its police and fire operations elsewhere.

The Massey Building on Chain Bridge Road housed the government's executive offices throughout the 1970s and 1980s before becoming the home of the county's police and fire departments. Almost since the day the building opened in 1967, workers in the 14-story office tower have complained bitterly about slow elevators, little parking, poor ventilation and cramped quarters.

Hundreds of pages of government reports, inspections and internal e-mails obtained by The Washington Post show that the building is falling into disrepair and creating increasingly dangerous working conditions. Portions of it have been closed twice in the past year, including once in mid-December when water flooded the top two floors and asbestos fell from holes in the ceiling.

"It's a maintenance nightmare," said José A. Comayagua Jr., the county's facilities management director. "There's so many deficiencies with the building that it makes it extremely difficult to do any meaningful repairs."

Of about 180 buildings, Massey is in the worst shape, Comayagua said.

Among the most critical problems are the building's overloaded electrical system; outdated heating and cooling components; faulty plumbing; obsolete fire alarms; and asbestos-caked pipes and beams, according to county inspections and reports.

Asbestos, which was once used to fireproof buildings, is the biggest concern, officials say. Air tests performed this year have not found any violations of Environmental Protection Agency health standards, but a June report on the building's condition found that the continued presence of asbestos "may pose a potential health risk" for employees and visitors.

The most alarming example of such risks was the December incident, caused when a pump in the building's cooling system burst during a spell of particularly cold weather. Flooding caused significant water damage to the building's 11th and 12th floors, and falling asbestos prompted an emergency clean-up.

County officials did not initially disclose details of the Dec. 20 flooding and asbestos issues at Massey until The Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the building's deteriorating condition. Unlike a similar incident in July, in which a failed motor left the entire building without air conditioning for two days, Fairfax officials did not send out a public notice that parts of the Massey Building had been sealed off because of the asbestos.

Pictures of the flooding show water-filled trash cans lining hallways, water dripping on police computers and desks, and broken ceiling tiles covering office floors. Internal e-mails between facilities workers and top county leaders, including County Executive Anthony H. Griffin and Deputy County Executives Edward L. Long Jr. and Robert A. Stalzer, also indicate that employees became concerned that asbestos contamination from the top two floors could have "migrated" to other areas of the building.

In one e-mail exchange, Comayagua told colleagues that late on Dec. 20, several county information technology employees, returning to work to pick up documents, discovered that 1 to 2 feet of water had accumulated in the penthouse portion of the building.

The entire building could have been "completely flooded" if the employees had not returned, he said. "Of note, we were truly lucky on this one!" Comayagua wrote.

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