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GAO Finds Oversight Problems in Hart Cleanup

A General Accounting Office audit report released Tuesday provides a snapshot of the $27 million cleanup program the Environmental Protection Agency carried out in late 2001 to rid Capitol Hill of anthrax contamination.

The GAO study, requested by Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), examined the manner in which the EPA awarded contracts for the decontamination effort, its oversight of contractors’ work and EPA’s indemnification agreements with those contractors.

The Hart Senate Office Building closed Oct. 15, 2001, when a letter containing anthrax spores was opened in the the office of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), and the building was not reopened until the conclusion of the three-month decontamination process in late January 2002.

GAO, which called the cleanup successful, found that the EPA used a competitive bidding process in awarding nearly 80 percent, or $20.4 million, of funds spent on the Capitol Hill clean-up.

However, the report found inconsistencies in EPA’s oversight practices, including the use of a computerized cost-tracking system and failing to review daily costs of technical contracts.

“If EPA doesn’t track the money well enough, taxpayers will never know whether they got the best deal or not. If inadequate contractor oversight occurs on every EPA clean-up project, unwarranted expenses for taxpayers could be widespread,” Grassley said in a statement after the report’s release. “… This report sets a useful benchmark for ongoing and future EPA cleanup projects. EPA can learn from the recommendations to ensure the government gets its money’s worth out of contractors on these big projects.”

During the three-month clean-up, EPA investigators tested 26 buildings on or near the Capitol complex, finding evidence of anthrax in seven.

The report notes that unlike decontamination efforts in other structures found to have anthrax spores — including a building in Boca Raton, Fla., and the Brentwood postal facility — the Hart Building opened relatively quickly. The other buildings had not re-opened as of May 2003.

The report also found that EPA’s clean-up was not delayed by a four-week-long negotiation over indemnification with one of the contractors assigned to fumigate the Hart Building with chlorine dioxide gas.

“Because the negotiation process occurred at the same time that testing was being performed offsite to determine the proper decontamination methods to use at the Hart Senate Office Building, the month-long negotiation process did not delay the cleanup. However, it potentially could have done so,” the report states.

In assessments of its own work, EPA officials recommended “expanding contractor indemnification to address counter-terrorism response activities,” the report said.

“In about 3 months and without harm to emergency response workers or congressional staff, EPA, the Capitol Police Board, and others planned and successfully conducted the first cleanup of office buildings contaminated by a lethal form of anthrax that had caused several deaths elsewhere,” the report states. “Moreover, EPA has taken the initiative to study its response actions to better prepare itself for other emergency cleanups, including other potential terrorism attacks, and has identified areas in which it could improve.”

During the decontamination about 3,250 bags of “critical items” were taken to a company in Richmond, Va., to be cleaned with ethylene oxide. Another 4,000 packages and other mail items were decontaminated with chlorine dioxide gas, and drums of mail were sent to Lima, Ohio, to be treated through irradiation.

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