Report: VA puts historic buildings at risk

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been ignoring laws protecting historical landmarks, threatening hundreds of historic medical centers and hospital buildings, according to a new report.

The nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation found that the department’s actions are putting historic sites at risk and wasting taxpayer money to build new facilities rather than update existing ones. 

“It is consistently cheaper to the taxpayer to renovate their existing historic buildings than to start new buildings,” Leslie Barras, the author of the report, told The Hill.

She said that the VA has a "cultural attitude that these buildings are liabilities, not assets...It appears that the taxpayers are being panelized for that culture -- as well as past veterans.”

About 91 percent of the buildings owned by the department have been evaluated for eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places, but the report asserted that the VA “is doing an inadequate job of protecting these assets.”

Half of the 2,008 buildings it manages have been categorized as either “unsatisfactory” or “unoccupied and risk[ing] deterioration,” the report found, making it unlikely they will be used in the future. The VA has a history of opening new facilities instead of restoring those old ones, according to the report.

The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act both require federal agencies to consider how their actions would affect properties that are listed in or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The report found that that hasn’t been happening. But unlike other regulations, there aren’t any penalties for not complying with the law on historic sites.

“Unlike environmental laws, where noncompliance can mean civil fines or even imprisonment and criminal fines, there is no civil or criminal penalties under the National Historic Preservation Act,” Barras said. “What that really does is to put the burden on citizens to try to hold the VA accountable.”

In a statement, the VA said that it “takes seriously its responsibility to care for historic buildings in its custody as we carry out our mission to provide the quality care and benefits Veterans have earned and deserve.”

The report suggested that the department commit to preserve its historic facilities and work with nonprofits and businesses to refurbish and lease buildings that it owns but can no longer use.  

The department said that it will review the report’s recommendations and that it “appreciates the mission of the Trust and shares its commitment to protecting our nation’s heritage.”

-- This story was updated with the VA's statement at 11:11 a.m.