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Asbestos, water leaks among Fairfax building's hazards

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; C01

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Among the most critical problems are the building's overloaded electrical system; outdated heating and cooling components; faulty plumbing; obsolete fire alarms; and asbestos-caked pipes and beams, according to county inspections and reports.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

Maj. Michael Kline, commander of the county police department's Technical Service Bureau, wrote to officials in June, saying that ceiling tiles in his office "show clear signs of a leaky roof" and that he had not been able to get severely damaged tiles replaced because it would "require my office to be shut down for a considerable amount of time based upon concerns for the asbestos."

"There is at least one office that has a portion of a tile missing that allows me to see exposed piping in an area that the other reports indicate the tiles should not be tampered with," Kline wrote.

Kline, who has worked in the Massey Building on and off since 1998, said in an interview Friday that he's heard concerns from fellow employees about the asbestos. But he said repairs to ceiling tiles and air tests that show no elevated levels of asbestos fibers have helped assuage his worries.

Several of Fairfax's older and fraying public buildings, including Massey and the Pine Ridge police facility in central Fairfax, have long been identified as in need of immediate repair or demolition. More than a third of county buildings (excluding schools) are more than 30 years old, and nearly 60 percent have passed their 20th year. But the construction of new schools and roads have largely taken precedence over replacing older structures, especially given the money crunch facing the county in the past three years.

The demolition of the Massey Building would cost at least $5.2 million, according to a consultant's estimate prepared last March. A complete renovation would cost about $28.5 million.

Fairfax officials announced Tuesday that the county is facing a $257 million shortfall next fiscal year, prompting a tax rate increase, fee increases and deep service cuts across most agencies. Griffin, the county executive, also projected a shortfall of at least $130 million for 2012.

"Given our budget situation, our options are limited," Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said of the Massey Building. "But something has to be done."

Potential locations for a new public safety headquarters have been discussed in closed-door meetings by county supervisors, but officials have yet to find an affordable, centrally located alternative. Among the sites being discussed are a county-owned baseball field near the Government Center and an office park in Chantilly.

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