The Smithsonian Institution, which was cited by the Environmental Protection Agency last year for violating PCB regulations, should take steps immediately "to prevent a catastrophic fire or other incident" in one of its museums, according to a fire and safety consultant's recent study.
The 70-page report, a fire emergency plan for the Museum of Natural History, found safety deficiencies that could allow a polychlorinated biphenyl transformer fire to spread deadly fumes throughout the facility. The report made 21 recommendations, estimated to cost more than $265,000, to help avoid a PCB fire that "could result in total loss of facility operations for years, the loss of collections which could not be decontaminated, damage and clean-up costs in the millions of dollars."
Another recent report by an electrical contractor faulted Smithsonian officials for delaying electrical repairs in the past and found that they apparently did not understand how to prepare bids for electrical maintenance contracts or how to carry out recommendations of contractors who have inspected the electrical equipment.
Both reports lauded the Smithsonian's efforts to resolve its transformer and electrical problems and noted that the condition of the Smithsonian facilities is generally good. The Smithsonian has spent about $270,000 on electrical equipment repairs since the EPA cited it for violations last summer.
The EPA notified the Smithsonian Jan. 10 that it was in compliance with the PCB regulations. Still, the two new studies, by private consultants hired by the Smithsonian, indicate that additional steps must be taken before the Smithsonian's transformer and electrical problems are completely solved.
A section of the electrical report addresses a number of charges -- including safety and fire hazards, sloppy workmanship, substandard contract preparations and managerial indifference -- leveled against the Smithsonian by its lone high-voltage electrician, David Adams.
Adams supplied information that resulted in articles last year in The Washington Post that revealed problems with the Smithsonian's PCB transformers and prompted an EPA inspection.
During that July inspection, the EPA found at least 19 violations in the institution's disposal, use and storage of PCBs, a carcinogenic, fire-retardant transformer coolant. The EPA also found violations in the Smithsonian's record keeping on PCBs and in its marking of PCB materials.
In a recent interview, Adams charged that, because of his role in identifying deficiencies, Smithsonian officials have harassed him by issuing him what he called unwarranted reprimands, and he said they want to fire him.
Smithsonian officials last week denied the allegations.
D.C. Fire Department officials have said that because of the deadly byproducts emitted when PCBs burn, including dioxin, which the EPA has called "one of the most toxic substances known," they would not fight a PCB fire in a Smithsonian museum and would go inside only to rescue someone.
After the EPA's notice of noncompliance, the Smithsonian cleaned up its 57 PCB transformers and repaired a total of 257 leaks in 54 of them, according to William F. Wells, assistant director of the Smithsonian's office of plant services.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health also inspected the Smithsonian recently and found that PCB contamination is mostly confined to vaults that house the transformers and is not being tracked into areas used by the public.
A fire emergency study for the Museum of Natural History, prepared by Gage-Babcock and Associates Inc., stated that the institution has "no coordinated procedures for handling a major PCB incident." Under current plans, according to a preliminary draft of the report obtained by The Post, security personnel would be forced to make critical decisions, without the aid of more expert officials.
The report found that steam and sewer lines and heating, ventilation and air-conditioning grilles that go into transformer vaults could allow toxic fumes from a PCB transformer fire to spread thoughout the museum. It pointed out that doors to many transformer vaults are not fireproof.
The report singled out the museum's central equipment room, where three PCB transformers are located in an open area next to air-conditioning and other electrical equipment, as presenting "a serious fire hazard."
If there were a fire in that area, the report stated, workers would have to enter to shut off power to the transformers, and "personnel would be exposed to the PCBs, and PCB contaminants may spread further through the building."
Michael League, acting director of the Smithsonian's office of facilities services, said the report, which was submitted in November, is under review, but he indicated that there might be no funds to do the recommended work until fiscal 1988.
Also, the report faulted the Smithsonian for not having electrical "coordination studies" that detail how pieces of electrical equipment work together and what level of electrical charges they are capable of handling, a criticism made in a report by Met Electrical Testing Co. of Baltimore.
The Met Testing report raises questions about a pilot program under way at the Smithsonian to decontaminate PCB transformers by draining the PCB fluid and replacing it with a nontoxic coolant, a process known as retrofilling. Many electrical experts believe that this process cannot decontaminate a transformer enough to meet EPA regulations, which require that all high-voltage PCB transformers be phased out by Oct. 1, 1990.
"If the intent of the Smithsonian is to have only non-PCB transformers . . . all PCB transformers will have to be replaced," the report says. It estimates the cost of replacing coolant in the Smithsonian's 57 PCB transformers at $2 million and says that under optimal conditions "the replacement cost would be about the same."
The Smithsonian's League said the institution's contract with Unison Transformer Services guarantees that the two transformers in which it is replacing coolant at the National Air and Space Museum will meet EPA regulations. He said the institution will monitor the program to determine whether to replace other PCB transformers or change the coolant in them.
According to the Smithsonian's 1987 budget request, it may cost as much as $3.5 million to meet the EPA's 1990 deadline.
The Met Testing report noted that in previous years contract specifications prepared by Smithsonian officials for electrical equipment maintenance varied widely and that "in some cases items of equipment or commonly performed practices [were] omitted."
League said that he was "confident the bid documents have been upgraded" and that he was "confident whoever gets the reports, we now have people who are competent enough to understand" them and act on the recommendations. He said that the same people as in previous years will be responsible for reviewing the reports, but he explained that they "have a better understanding" of the process.
Though Adams was not identified by The Post as the source for its stories about the Smithsonian, institution officials have identified him as the person they believed was supplying the newspaper with information. In a recent interview, Adams said he wants to be identified publicly "to show that there is somebody in the Smithsonian who is willing to clean their own house" and because Smithsonian officials are "trying to ruin my career."
Adams received an official reprimand in October after an incident in a transformer vault caused minor equipment damage.
An investigation of the incident by the Smithsonian's safety office cleared Adams, noting that at the time of the incident he had been working 23 hours without a break and had repeatedly asked his supervisors to reschedule the work or obtain assistance.
The safety office's report found that corners had been cut on safety to meet "the demands placed within the institution to meet schedules dictated by exhibit openings, public programs, operating hours and numerous other functions."
"I think they're trying to harass him to the point where he breaks and leaves," said Dwight Bowman, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 2463, which represents electrical and other workers at the Smithsonian. "We can't prove a conspiracy around here, but everybody knows what's going on."
Wells and League denied that Adams has been treated unfairly by Smithsonian officials. "Mr. Adams is not being singled out or persecuted," Wells said, adding that "technically, the man is very competent. I told him, 'The last thing I want to do is lose you.' "
Dana Green, manager of Substation Test Co., which as part of its annual maintenance inspections has reported electrical and transformer deficiencies to the Smithsonian since 1982, praised Adams' work.
"I can say without reservation he's conscientious, and by all appearances and contacts I've had with him, he appears to be trying to get something accomplished in his job," said Green, noting that deficiencies reported as long as three years ago were corrected only after publication of The Post's articles.