Smelly water is seeping from the floor near Douglas Kellogg’s office in the basement of the state Capitol.
Kellogg, the building manager, thinks a clogged pipe is forcing water to back up through an old drain now covered by flooring.
A power drain cleaner should take care of the problem, but, like so many issues with this 96-year-old building, there is a catch. The original cast iron pipes below the building are so fragile that the cleaner, called a “K50,” could easily punch a hole through the side of the pipe and cause an even bigger problem.
“I’m going to have to run a K50 I guess, but I’m scared to,” Kellogg said.
Nothing is easy in a building where major maintenance has been deferred for years. Barricades have been set up to protect people from falling chunks of the limestone facade. Old cloth-covered electrical wires present another potential hazard. Broken pipes sometimes send a sewage odor through parts of the building.
Bond proposals tough sell
Despite all the problems, taxpayer-supported bond proposals to make permanent repairs have been a tough sell in a conservative Legislature concerned about debt, even though the vast majority of states have more bond debt than Oklahoma. One of the big remaining questions of this legislative session is whether lawmakers will finally support a measure to fix their own workplace.
Tuesday, the Oklahoma House soundly defeated a bill to issue $160 million in bonds to repair the state Capitol, but the state Senate resurrected the plan two days later. It’s not clear what the final outcome will be.
Meantime, Kellogg and his workers go from one quick fix to another to try to protect visitors and state employees.
“These guys are running around like chickens with their heads cut off just trying to chase things,” said John Estus, spokesman for the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services. “They’re doing really good work but they’re just putting Band-Aids on a larger wound.”
One of those temporary fixes occurred in a long pedestrian tunnel under Lincoln Boulevard on the east side of the Capitol.
Concern over the potential for mold in the perpetually moist tunnel led workers to seal it and pump in chlorine gas to kill anything that might be growing there. The 628-foot tunnel still leaks water, so 16 blue plastic trash cans are positioned along the walls to catch the drips. A colorful mural shows Oklahomans at work and play, but, in spots, it’s water-stained and cracked.
A permanent fix for the leaky tunnel would require a major, expensive project in which workers would have to dig up Lincoln Boulevard.
So far, test results for mold at the Capitol have not exceeded health standards, but concerns remain.
“It’s been close,” Estus said. “If something is not done in the near future, we will fail the test. There’s no doubt about it. We are right at the point where we’re close to failing but not failing tests.”
Kellogg said he sometimes hears from employees about health issues they attribute to the building.
“If a person comes up to us and says, ‘I’ve got asthma and I never had asthma before,’ how can I say that something didn’t cause that,” he said. “That’s the kind of concerns we get.”
The deteriorating condition of the building leaves the state vulnerable to complaints about working conditions.
“That is why employers have to have safe workplaces for employees. It doesn’t matter if you are a public or a private employer,” Estus said. “We’re at a point in this building where as an employer the state is not providing the best working environment that it could. It is an adequate working environment but in a few years it may not be a safe working environment.”
Water causes another potential danger. On the exterior of the building, moisture has deteriorated cast iron pins holding limestone blocks in place. The pins swell and chunks of limestone pop off and fall to the ground. Also, mortar between limestone blocks has worn away in places and needs to be replaced to keep water from infiltrating behind the stone.
“We could run back-up stainless steel bracket, stainless steel pins and fasteners and literally tie this together,” said Duane Mass, Capitol architect. “There’s all sorts of neat things we can do retroactively. All of it’s fixable. Let’s not let it get to a point where literally giant pieces start dropping off.”
He has a name for the biggest piece to drop off yet.
“The ‘football’ was a piece that fell off that was literally the size of a football. If it had hit somebody it would kill them like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
Electrical wire issues
Another concern is old cloth-covered wire in the building’s electrical system. Newer electrical wires in the building are shielded in metallic tubes. The older wires do not have this shielding and could pose a fire threat if there were an electrical overload.
A building renovation also would need to address the rotting sewer lines beneath the Capitol. The old lines would need to be replaced with modern materials that would hold up better over time. Problems with these and other pipes in the Capitol lead to bad odors in the building at times.
Mass calls all this work normal maintenance for a building that is nearly a century old. The state Capitol was completed on June 30, 1917.
“The building, I mean structurally, this guy will be here in 500 years, if we can keep up with the maintenance and all the things we have to do,” Mass said. “This building is very sound. The bones of this building are great. That’s why it’s the perfect candidate to take a brush over it and give it that new face and, buddy, we’re good for another 50 to a 100 years. You can’t have any asset — a car, a wagon, anything — and just use it indefinitely.”
But until there is a permanent fix, Kellogg will be there to apply the Band-Aids.
When he finally pushed the power cleaner into the old seeping floor drain near his office, the machine hit mud, meaning the drain pipe is no longer in one piece. It has corroded so much that mud from beneath the Capitol has mixed into the pipe.
The quick fix: For now, Kellogg has closed a bathroom and two sinks near the drain so nothing flows into the damaged section of pipe.
At a glance
Competing proposals have emerged this legislative session to repair the state Capitol. A Senate plan would authorize a bond issue of $160 million for the repairs. A House proposal would ask voters whether to issue $120 million in bonds. During debate, many lawmakers seemed to agree that repairs are needed but had different approaches on how to pay for these repairs.
Taxpayer’s need say
in repairing Capitol
Some lawmakers have expressed concerns about authorizing bonds to fund repairs. Taxpayers pay the interest on these bonds. Rep. Paul Wesselhoft has argued repairs could be funded on a pay-as-you-go basis, with about $10 million spent a year from the General Revenue Fund until repairs are complete. Rep. Steve Vaughan called the Capitol the “people’s house” and said it’s only right that the people be allowed to vote on the issue. House Minority Leader Scott Inman said the state could use some of the $600 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund to pay for repairs.
Less bonded debt than
If Oklahoma lawmakers approved a plan favored by the Senate for a $160 million bond issue to fix the Capitol, the state still would have less bonded indebtedness than most states. Jim Joseph, state bond adviser, said Oklahoma ranks No. 38 nationally in tax-supported bond debt per capita. The state now has about $2 billion in such bonds. That amount is set to decrease by 41 percent in the next five years.