The U.S. General Services Administration manages more than 1,000 federal buildings in the U.S. that were constructed when hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead paint were commonly used. Its policy is to inspect buildings that may contain asbestos every five years, but hundreds of them are overdue for inspections. GSA estimates it has more than $2 billion in unfunded environmental liabilities, with asbestos-related cleanups accounting for $1.6 billion of that total, according to a new U.S. Government Accountability Office report

Lingering asbestos could pose health hazards, and also could delay GSA efforts to sell properties that are no longer needed, GAO says. GSA takes immediate action to deal with damaged asbestos but otherwise generally waits for larger projects such as renovations to abate asbestos.

At the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colo., several parcels are being prepared for redevelopment. But before starting any construction, GSA, its property manager, wants to clean up soil and groundwater contamination related to past ammunition manufacturing and demolition of buildings that contained asbestos. 

Fully addressing the contamination is estimated to cost $26 million, according to GAO. But GSA officials say a full cleanup of the properties is unlikely because of cost and physical feasibility. Instead, the agency has established an interceptor trench for contaminated groundwater and expects to have ongoing monitoring and management costs.

Denver Federal Center represents GSA’s largest hazardous release site by cost estimate, according to the GAO report. But about two thirds of agency-managed buildings that are supposed to be inspected for asbestos every five years are out of compliance with the asbestos inspection policy. More than 200 have not been inspected for changes in asbestos condition in 10 to 20 years, and 11 have not been inspected for more than 20 years. For another 228 buildings, GSA could not say when they were last inspected. 

GSA_asbestos_inspections.jpgAbout two-thirds of GSA buildings due for asbestos inspections are not in compliance with its policy. Chart courtesy of Government Accountability Office

Speaking with GAO for the report, GSA officials identified several reasons for the inspection backlog, including limited funding, staffing shortages and incomplete records. Also, the database it uses to track asbestos information has various constraints, such as file size upload limits and lack of a mechanism to track inspection completion. GSA officials must manually search the database, which is time consuming.

GSA was also one of four federal property owners with backlogs of maintenance and repairs GAO studied for another report last year. 

In the new report, GAO recommended two strategies GSA could take to deal with the issue: It could implement a plan to ensure that asbestos inspections are done in line with its current policy, or it could revise the policy to use a risk-based approach with strategies to account for funding shortages, overdue inspections and updating its database for easier monitoring of compliance. 

In a response to the report, GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan wrote that the agency "agrees with the recommendation and is developing a plan to take appropriate action on the recommendation.”

GSA did not immediately respond to inquiries seeking more detail about the plan.