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August 12, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The General Services Administration on Monday ordered inspections to ensure the safety of electrical transformers serving 7,200 federal buildings around the country, notably those containing PCBs, a potentially toxic chemical.

GSA officials in Washington told the 11 regional administrators to make an immediate inventory of transformers, repair those with a possibility of PCB leakage, and re-inspect them daily, said Joseph Slye, a GSA spokesman.

He said GSA Administrator Terence Golden also issued an order speeding up efforts to rid the federal system of hazardous transformers.

In July, the Environmental Protection Agency set a 1990 nationwide deadline for tightening control of equipment using PCBs. The GSA will do it by 1988 under Golden’s order, the spokesman said.

About 850,000 people work in the buildings affected by the order.

The problem of PCBs has been raised dramatically in recent weeks by revelations of possible hazards at the Smithsonian Institution and the White House.

Washington fire officials announced in early July that because of the potential hazard of PCB leaks, if a fire broke out at several noted Smithsonian museums they would not permit firefighters inside unless lives were in jeopardy.

Potentially dangerous conditions also were found in part of the White House complex, away from President Reagan’s living and working quarters.

Slye said he did not know if any other buildings run by the GSA had reported PCB problems.

PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyl compounds, can cause cancer and other disorders in laboratory animals. If burned they are even more dangerous because they change into dioxin and other powerful cancer-causing agents.

From 1925 to 1979 PCB fluids were used as electrical insulators because of their fire resistance and cooling properties.

Slye said the GSA had been examining the environmental agency’s anti-PCB rules and that the orders issued on Monday ″put a lot more teeth into what we’re doing.″

He said it would cost roughly $120 million to check the 1,500 transformers in federal buildings, refit those with problems and continuously inspect any PCB-filled equipment that is been approved for use.

It will cost about $100 million to do the work in the Washington area and about $20 million throughout the rest of the country, an indication of how the federal bureaucracy is concentrated near the nation’s capital.

Loretta Ucelli, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, said the union would monitor GSA’s ″procedures and timetable for the cleanup.

″We’re obviously glad that the GSA has recognized the seriousness of the problem and is moving to rectify it. This is a top priority issue; the speedup is important.″

The AFGE, representing 700,000 federal workers, is the largest federal employees union.

Slye said the order may create some legal problems because it affects buildings that are leased to the government, not just those it owns.

In addition to attacking the PCB problem, the agency is forming a group to devise an overall strategy to rid government buildings of all potentially unsafe conditions, including the spread of asbestos fibers and fire hazards.

He said Douglas Harvell, deputy administrator of the Kansas City region, would head the program.

Update hourly