EPA tells employees lab facility ‘meets all federal guidelines’ after air quality report concerns

The Environmental Protection Agency has notified employees relocating to a vehicle emissions testing lab that their new workplace is safe to work in, after one of several indoor air quality tests provided to staff showed higher-than acceptable levels of carbon dioxide in some of the facilities.

Starting Monday, about 20 EPA employees will relocate to prefabricated office space at the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This comes after the EPA closed the Large Lakes Research Station in Grosse Ile, Michigan last month after nearly a yearlong battle with Congress to keep it open

The American Federation of Federal Employees Local 704 says the air quality report, completed by EPA staff and officials from Federal Occupational Health, an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, “does not show that it is safe for EPA employees to work in the Ann Arbor Porta-fab Offices” and that “more confirmatory sampling is needed to show that the workspace is safe.”

In its response to the air quality report, AFGE officials took issue with EPA and FOH’s claim that “all indoor air quality, safety, and industrial hygiene parameters monitored during the initial and two follow-up surveys were below all regulated and/or recommended limits, and the office spaces are considered to be in acceptable conditions for occupancy.”

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Union officials instead flagged a section of the report that found CO2 levels “in the Two Porta-Fab office areas were not acceptable” during the first of three surveys conducted of the facilities.

However, an EPA spokesperson disputed AFGE’s concerns about air safety, saying that the higher-than-average CO2 levels amounted to a false positive that stemmed from ventilation systems not being fully online at the time of the initial test.

“The typical process is to perform the tests after ventilation systems are fully operational. However, in this case, a delay in the completion of the ventilation system meant that testing was done both before and after,” the spokesperson said in an email to Federal News Network.

The first round of indoor air quality testing, conducted without the ventilation system, detected elevated CO2 levels, but the spokesperson said follow-up tests performed with a fully functioning ventilation system “showed no elevated CO2 levels and determined that the indoor air quality meets all federal guidelines.”

AFGE officials also expressed concern over the report’s finding that “noise levels may be uncomfortable to some individuals and/or disruptive to office work” because of the facility’s ventilation system. The EPA spokesperson said the agency will continue to work on reducing sound from the ventilation system.

“However, testing confirmed that although the noise may be annoying, it does not exceed permissible exposure limits,” the spokesperson said.

Employees are expected to report to work on Monday at the Ann Arbor location.

The report’s findings provide more fodder on a contentious issue between AFGE and the EPA. AFGE Local 704 President Nicole Cantello filed a formal records request for the air quality reports in July, after the EPA’s unilateral collective bargaining terms went into effect.

Aside from reducing telework to one day a week, cutting official time and removing union offices from EPA buildings, the recent collective bargaining terms nullified a memorandum of understanding AFGE reached with EPA management in February 2018 to finalize the Grosse Ile station’s closure.

In that MOU, the EPA guaranteed AFGE access to air quality records for the Ann Arbor facility prior to the move-in date.

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