Tue | Feb 19, 2019

Update: Workers to relocate from Oceana hazard ‘in months’, says Clarke

Published:Friday | February 8, 2019 | 9:50 AM
Staff members abandoned their workstations at the Accountant General’s Department on Wednesday over lingering air-quality problems at the Oceana building in downtown Kingston on Tuesday.

The finalisation of paperwork is the only hurdle preventing workers at the Accountant General’s Department from being relocated from the problem-plagued ground floor of the Oceana building in downtown Kingston, which has been beset by air-pollution woes.

But it is uncertain whether that assurance from Finance and the Public Service Minister Dr Nigel Clarke that a new location has been identified will assuage the frustration of staff there because the minister was non-committal on a date.

It could take “several months” before relocation gets under way, Clarke told The Gleaner on Wednesday.

“After a long search, we have identified a suitable building. I don’t want to say much because we are in the process of documentation,” the minister said.

“It wasn’t easy to find a building in specific size and specification to accommodate the Accountant General’s Department. I am happy we have identified one that is suitable and are in the documentation phase. It is just a matter of several months as opposed to days, weeks, or years.”

Sources have indicated that the Towers in New Kingston will be the new site of the Accountant General’s Department.

10-YEAR LEASE

A 10-year lease had been signed in 2015 for the Accountant General’s Department to occupy the ground floor of the Oceana building. An auditor general’s report had indicated that the lease would cost the Government, cumulatively, $1.3 billion over the decade, not including $107 million for parking, well beyond the recommended price point from the commissioner of lands. The State also spent around half a billion dollars in retrofitting the building before occupying the premises in 2017.

On Tuesday, workers staged a protest over poor air quality inside the building. While no one was willing to speak on the record to the media for fear of being penalised because they are not authorised to speak to the press, they relayed stories of either respiratory illnesses or skin rashes caused by undetermined particulate matter in the air.

It was at least the third time that workers at the Accountant General’s Department have staged protest action over health complications, The Gleaner has learnt.

Multiple attempts at renovating the Ocean building have proven unsuccessful as the air-quality issues persist.

“Just as the workers moved there in 2017, they started experiencing issues. We don’t know what is in the air,” O’ Neil Grant, president of the Jamaica Civil Service Association, told The Gleaner on Tuesday.

“People are unaware as to what was making them ill. Several reports were done that indicated that air quality was not the best. Persons have sent photographs to the union of mould accumulation in areas.”

But Clarke sought to give the assurance that he was determined to resolve the long-running grouse. “I inherited a problem, and I am trying to fix it,” the minister told The Gleaner on Wednesday.

“When I became aware of the problem, I commissioned an international engineering firm to engage in a technical review of the site, including an examination of the original design of the renovation, an examination of the implementation against the design, and to undertake an assessment of the current state of the space and to make recommendations to address the issues. The report has been completed.”

As soon as the building is vacated, Clarke will be collaborating with the Urban Development Corporation to ensure that the recommendations are properly implemented.

“Once they are implemented and the space is tested and deemed to be sufficiently rehabilitated, then the building can be made available to another department of government. We do need space in government, so the plan would not be to leave the space empty indefinitely,” the minister said.

jason.cross@gleanerjm.com

UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect that the lease was signed in 2015 and that the Accountant General's Department air-quality issues apply to the ground floor of the Oceana building.