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AOC Pulls Crew Out of Tunnels

Correction Appended

Having received “new medical information” about employees’ exposure to deadly levels of asbestos, the Architect of the Capitol’s office has informed the 10 members of its tunnel shop team that they no longer will be allowed to work in the miles-long underground system that supplies steam and chilled water to Capitol Hill.

While lawmakers and members of the crew have long taken issue with the AOC’s handling of the tunnel matter, they are not satisfied with the announcement.

“The Architect’s decision to take action is a welcome one, but does little to excuse the many years of negligence that have cost these workers their health,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on employment and workplace safety, said in a release Tuesday. “For far too long these workers were exposed to deadly concentrations of asbestos while the Architect’s Office turned its back on their complaints.”

According to sources, after reading a preliminary report by the employees’ physician, Murray put increased pressure on acting Architect Stephen Ayers this week to pull the workers out of the tunnels.

When asked why Ayers decided to pull the workers out now, AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said Tuesday that “through participation in an [Occupational Safety and Health Administration]-mandated medical surveillance program over the past several years, the tunnel workers had received medical clearance to work in the tunnels. Upon receiving new medical information on the workers Monday evening, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol restricted the workers’ access to the tunnels beginning today.”

Malecki said the AOC will “re-evaluate each employee’s medical qualifications and/or work restrictions. The AOC remains fully committed to ensuring employee safety, to solving the utility tunnel issues expeditiously, and to keeping Congress informed of our progress.”

Malecki did not say how the AOC would be dealing with maintenance and other operations in the tunnels following Tuesday’s action.

Members first started raising concerns about health and safety violations that existed in the tunnels in February 2006, after the Office of Compliance filed a formal complaint against the AOC for years of neglect in the tunnel system. Some of the hazards the OOC cited dated back to the late 1990s.

The workers came forward soon after the OOC complaint was filed to tell Congress about the asbestos-related health problems they were experiencing.

But last year, John Eisold, Congress’ Attending Physician, told a Senate committee that he personally reviewed the employees’ records and reported no findings consistent with dust-induced diseases such as asbestosis, a respiratory disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

In July, several members of the team visited the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit to seek a second opinion, and the employees’ physician, Michael Harbut, has since told Members of Congress that the workers had signs of pulmonary and respiratory disease likely caused by their exposure.

Murray became involved last month when she invited the supervisor of the tunnel shop team, John Thayer, to testify at a hearing on asbestos in the workplace.

Thayer, who along with his team has filed a separate complaint against the AOC for retaliation, said Tuesday that the move to pull them out of the tunnels is not necessarily a welcome turn of events.

“This is something they’ve been waiting to do for a while now, to mix us up in the shops and break us up,” Thayer said. “They wanted to break up our solidarity. Without us sticking together they can say whatever they want.”

On Tuesday afternoon, he said, AOC officials “pulled our tunnel access and the safety officer gave me a wag of his finger and said if we were caught down in the tunnels they would call the police on us. It wasn’t a friendly conversation, it was the AOC’s arrogant attitude.”

David Marshall, an attorney representing the workers, said the AOC is only reacting now because Congress and the public have expressed outrage that life-threatening levels of asbestos exposure have occurred at the Capitol.

“It’s very ironic that the AOC after demonstrating deliberate indifference to the workers’ health and safety for many many years, is suddenly concerned about their health,” he said.

Marshall added that “while we appreciate Sen. Murray’s concern for the health and safety of the workers, we are very concerned that the Architect will … use this opportunity to further retaliate against them and put the workers in jobs in the [Capitol Power Plant] that are similarly unhealthy and unsafe.”

Just this week, a private contractor for the AOC began work to abate asbestos in the power plant, and that work is expected to continue through the end of the year.

On Tuesday, Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said “it has taken too long” for the AOC to present a plan for protecting workers from asbestos and other hazardous conditions.

“And now, there is increasing evidence that those employees who have been working in the tunnels may be suffering from asbestosis and other diseases,” she said. “Worker health and safety must be of the utmost concern to the Architect’s office. Further delays cannot be tolerated and I will continue to push him for a plan to that protects the Capitol workers and community.”

On the House side, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who serves as chairwoman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, has questioned the Architect at several hearings about the health and safety hazards in the tunnel system and has promised to hold a separate hearing in which former Architect Alan Hantman, who served from 1997 until February of this year, will testify about how the system has fallen into such disrepair.

“I think [removing the workers from the tunnels] is long overdue. I’m glad the Architect finally took a step that was in the interest of the safety of the workers,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It’s just a shame that it took this long. I think we’ve clearly only scratched the surface on the asbestos problem there. … As far as I’m concerned I still plan on having a hearing specifically on this subject.”

As Congress continues to look into this problem, Wasserman Schultz said, “we need to protect the interest of the tunnel workers as well. We have to make sure that their jobs aren’t sacrificed. That they aren’t asked to make more sacrifices than they already have made.”

Correction: April 17, 2007
A quote from tunnel shop supervisor John Thayer was incorrectly recorded.

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