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Federal building employees push for temporary closure over Legionella concerns

mcnamara federal building.jpg
Posted at 6:14 PM, Jan 05, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-05 18:14:10-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Employees working at the Patrick McNamara Federal building in downtown Detroit are pushing to have it temporarily closed for Legionella concerns.

7 Action News first reported on issues within the building in December after the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) found elevated levels of lead, copper, and legionella in water in several sites throughout the building.

Ingesting copper, lead, and Legionella in drinking water can cause digestive issues, brain damage, and Legionnaire's disease among other health issues.

A group of employees working at the federal building say the 7 Action News December report was the first time they’d even been notified. At least two more agencies with office spaces at the McNamara building have moved to remote work or deployed workers to other facilities after hearing the report. Now employees say they want the building closed until GSA can 100% guarantee the building is safe.

"I don’t believe GSA is totally providing all information that they know. That makes it even scarier," said Monique Buchanan who has worked in the federal building for 15 years.

Buchanan is the president of AFGE Local 3239, which in part represents employees at the Social Security Field Office. She says she believes employees may have been ingesting the chemicals and bacteria for much longer than they realize.

"GSA has not identified at the earliest point that egionella and copper and lead has been in the water. My assumption is because we were on mandatory telework until about March of 2022, I am assuming when we re-entered the sites, this was there waiting on us. And I believe we’ve been taking in this water, washing our hands, breathing in the steam from hot water since at least March of 2022," said Buchanan.

Reports sent to building employees show over the last few months, GSA has run multiple tests at 120 sites. A November round of testing showed multiple sites with uncontrolled or poorly controlled levels of lead, copper, and Legionella.

Jan 2024 Report (December Testing) by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd

After taking several problem fountains and bathrooms out of service and performing enhanced flushing, GSA sent a letter stating that a December round of testing showed only one site still had elevated levels of copper. The letter also showed five sites including the bathrooms on the 21st floor still have uncontrolled levels of Legionella. It's unclear what percentage of total sites the 120 samples represent.

Employees say it's especially concerning because they service so many vulnerable populations.

"We have a range of public that comes into our buildings that rely on us of course for service primarily but, secondly their assumption is that they’re in a safe facility because it’s a federal site," said Buchanan. "The public will not access water fountains and water sites that are closed off but the areas that have not yet been tested, which is 75% of the building, is not closed off. So there are sites where potentially there is harm."

Greg Senden represents employees at another office within the building and says GSA has not been transparent enough throughout this process.

"I guess our concern is that GSA is not doing the job that they should be doing to maintain and keep the buildings that they operate safe," said Senden. "I would like to see GSA be more forthcoming with information. I would like to have the public and the employees that work in this building be made aware of what the issues are so they can decide for themselves whether it’s safe for them to be in the building."

Friday morning, 7 Action News reached out to GSA for a comment on what has been done to remedy the water issues since our December report however no one was immediately available.

The agency sent the following statement last month:

The safety of federal employees, the public and contractors working in federal buildings is GSA’s highest priority. Water tests conducted on Nov. 8 at the Patrick V. McNamara Federal Building in Detroit determined elevated levels of Legionella in specific test points. GSA follows CDC guidance in addressing the risk of Legionella related illness. Immediately after receiving these test results, GSA notified building occupants, shut off the affected water outlets and restricted access to the outlets. In addition, GSA is continuing to flush water through these points while developing a full building water flushing and sampling testing plan. Additional testing is being conducted on the elevated test points.

GSA continues to keep building occupants apprised of the latest safety precautions in place.

Tanya Schusler
Regional Public Affairs Officer 
U.S. General Services Administration

"The goal here is not to point fingers or blame anyone. The goal here is just to make sure we have a safe facility here," said Buchanan.

Employees say they have also reached out to lawmakers to put pressure on GSA to remedy the issue. Senator Gary Peters who also has an office in the federal building sent the following:

“This is simply unacceptable. Members of the public who visit this building to access critical services, as well as the dedicated employees who work there, need to know that the water they are using is safe. I’ll continue pressing the General Services Administration to quickly and completely resolve this issue, and ensure they are responding to concerns like these effectively moving forward.”

Senator Gary Peters (D-MI)
Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee

Testing at water sites within the building is still ongoing. The next round is expected later this month.