Visiting national parks could be hazardous to your health. That's the conclusion that can be drawn from a snapshot of health and safety conditions across the National Park System.
The assessment, made by the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General, casts an alarming and greatly disturbing portrait of safety not just throughout the national parks, but across many, if not all, of the agencies that fall under Interior.
Reading the report, which you can find by following the "recently released reports" link at this site, it's almost a wonder that there hasn't been a serious accident somewhere within Interior's empire. Along with the National Park Service, Interior oversees the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Prepared at Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's request, the report singled out the Wawona Tunnel in Yosemite National Park as a serious threat to human safety because the tunnel has gone two decades without serious attention to maintenance and safety.
The National Park Service has allowed crucial maintenance to lapse for years at many of its parks. For at least 20 years, NPS has not performed critical maintenance on its aging Wawona Tunnel located in Yosemite National Park. We concluded that the hazardous conditions in the tunnel endanger lives.
Indeed, one Park Service official told the Inspector General's staff that, "I am alarmed at the potential for a catastrophic event of massive and deadly proportions in the Wawona Tunnel."
While work is under way to correct the tunnel's problems -- repairing exhaust fans so all three can operate properly, addressing the lack of fire escape exits and carbon monoxide sensors, developing an emergency response plan -- the Inspector General's staff visited just 10 of the park system's 391 units, leaving open to question whether other serious health and safety problems are lurking.
Judging from written comments received by the inspection staff, Interior and its agencies have seemed to lack a safety culture.
Some of these comments revealed many health and safety conditions that are serious and have gone uncorrected. Comments also revealed instances in which safety is not a priority and where employees have been retaliated against for reporting health and safety issues.
The Department and its bureaus need to systematically identify and correct health and safety deficiencies by making the protection of employees and the public an integral part of their asset management process. They must take immediate steps to prevent existing hazardous from escalating into deadly ones.
In their sampling of 10 parks, the Inspector General's staff found:
* The headquarters administration office at Grand Teton National Park does not meet earthquake seismic safety codes. Park employees who work in the Moose Maintenance Facility are exposed to poor indoor air quality "caused by vehicle exhaust coming from a garage where snow plows, dump trucks, and ambulances were kept. The facility was also over-crowded."
* At Dinosaur National Monument, deterioration of the Visit Center, which has been closed, continues to "put the irreplaceable fossils at risk. The day-to-day maintenance that is essential to keep the building standing has not been performed. As a result, the fossils were being degraded by exposure to weather and vermin droppings."
* "Providing safe drinking water and properly disposing of wastewater at Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks present a growing risk to the health of employees and the public. Combined, these parks operate 47 drinking water and 42 wastewater systems. An official at Yosemite stated that the park struggles to keep its aging systems running and repairs are usually not made until the facilities break or fail. (my emphasis) In addition, two of Yosemite's water systems did not comply with federal health regulations and many of Yellowstone's systems were in various states of deterioration.
* "NPS pilots at Denali and Lake Clark national parks in Alaska work in conditions that have been reported as unsafe for nearly 10 years by Departmental aviation experts. The airplanes are primarily used for search and rescue, wildlife surveys, scientific research, and law enforcement patrol."
The report, issued late in March, prompted an immediate response from Secretary Kempthorne to address the deficiencies.
"He has made a personal commitment to the employees to improve health and safety agencywide," a spokeswoman for the secretary told the Washington Post. "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."
Many of the problems can be traced to that incredible landscape that Interior oversees, coupled with a lack of resources, both financial and staff. For example, between Fiscal 2000 and Fiscal 2006 the backlog in Interior's maintenance programs ballooned "at least $2 billion," to somewhere between $9.6 billion and $17.3 billion, the report states.
"The Department faces the difficult challenge of maintaining an infrastructure valued at over $65 billion and spread over 500 million acres," the report notes. "The ability to adequately maintain this infrastructure is hampered by limited resources and the aging of the facilities. This infrastructure includes approximately 40,000 buildings; 4,200 bridges and tunnels; 126,000 miles of highways and roads, and; 2,500 dams as well as nearly every type of asset found in a local community."
And yet, Interior has just 175 full-time "safety professionals" to oversee its health and safety program.
Some other highlights of the report:
* The accident rate among Interior employees is one of the highest in the federal government. "During FY2006 4,409 workers' compensation claims were filed, representing a claim rate of 6.27 out of every 100 employees, exceeding the federal average by 41 percent. That year, the Department paid $58 million in claims and lost 15,000 days of employee work, which equates to 58 work years."
* Interior does not have "an organizational structure that facilitates an effective health and safety program."
* Interior does not have "effective coordination between the health and safety and asset management programs."
* Interior does not have "adequate numbers of trained safety staff."
* Interior does not have "an effective facility safety inspection program."
In response to the Inspector General's report, Secretary Kempthorne, among other things, appointed James Cason to oversee safety for Interior; agreed to create a position of Chief of Health and Safety; agreed to develop a department-wide action plan to eliminate significant health-and-safety deficiencies, and; agreed to create a funding strategy to address health and safety issues in a timely manner.