The Office of Compliance and Architect of the Capitol on Wednesday released details of a settlement agreement that, within the next five years, should lead to the elimination of the many health and safety hazards that exist in Capitol Hill’s utility tunnel system.
The agreement comes more than 14 months after OOC General Counsel Pete Eveleth took the unprecedented step of filing a formal complaint against the Architect for failing to address various concerns in the tunnel system — such as cracked and falling concrete — some of which dated back to the late 1990s. Not long after the OOC complaint was filed, the AOC’s 10-man tunnel crew came forward to tell Congress about their working conditions and the asbestos-related health problems they say were caused by the Architect’s negligence.
After originally disputing the OOC complaint, the AOC sat down eight months ago to hammer out the settlement that was released Wednesday. The agreement requires that a baseline survey of all health and safety hazards in the tunnels be completed within the next month and that within three months a comprehensive “site management plan” be drawn up to establish milestones and estimated costs for the five-year hazard abatement effort.
The settlement also requires quarterly reports on the conditions of the various hazards that exist in the tunnel system and monthly meetings between OOC and AOC representatives to discuss inspection and abatement issues. The settlement notes that a representative of the employees who work in the tunnels will be permitted to attend those meetings.
The agreement received mixed reactions on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who questioned the AOC and OOC about the tunnel hazards during hearings he held as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch during the 109th Congress, praised the agreement as “a historic occasion, as the OOC has never filed a complaint before.”
“I’m glad to see this as one more step forward in addressing the safety and health hazards existing in the Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels,” Allard said. “I look forward to monitoring the process as the AOC tries to meet the aggressive requirements outlined in the settlement.”
Meanwhile John Thayer, the supervisor of the 10-man tunnel shop, said the agreement “let [the AOC] off the hook. … We had to deal with this for the past eight years and now we’ll have to deal with this for another five years.”
Thayer said he had hoped the settlement agreement would be more aggressive and added that he’s concerned about a provision in the agreement that allows the AOC to petition for an extension to the five-year abatement goal due to extenuating circumstances such as budget shortfalls.
“It lets the Architect buy more time, and it lets the OOC get more money,” Thayer said.
Noting the OOC citations that went unaddressed by the AOC over the past seven years, Thayer said, “I understand their intentions, but the AOC’s past history with the OOC has been to say, ‘Don’t tell us what to do.’”
But the OOC’s Eveleth defended the agreement.
“Our ultimate goal in filing this complaint was to protect the health and safety of employees,” he said. “The settlement agreement that we have negotiated with the Architect of the Capitol is precedent-setting and creates a process that we are convinced will allow us to ensure that the existing hazards are corrected.”
The final price tag for cleaning up the aging utility tunnels — parts of which are 100 years old — is expected to be substantial. Former Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman, who finished his 10-year term in February, estimated last year that the cost would be upward of $100 million.
Meanwhile tunnel workers — who filed a separate complaint against the AOC in the fall for job retaliation — estimate that fixing the tunnels likely will cost more than five times that amount.
Since Members of Congress got involved in the tunnel issue last year, a substantial amount of money already has been devoted to cleaning up the system. The 2006 emergency supplemental included more than $27 million for the tunnels, while a provision in the fiscal 2007 continuing resolution boosted AOC funding for the Capitol Power Plant by $14.5 million. In the emergency supplemental that recently was vetoed by President Bush, Congress was seeking another $50 million for the tunnel system.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Mary Landrieu, who chairs the subcommittee on the legislative branch, said the Louisiana Democrat “is very glad this issue is being resolved.”
“She is anxious to review the cost estimates of the repair work and work with the Architect to make sure the necessary funding is appropriated to complete the work,” the spokeswoman added.
Since the OOC complaint was filed in February 2006, the AOC, under pressure from Congress, implemented an interim abatement plan to protect its workers from the most immediate dangers, including possible asbestos exposure, and began commissioning studies to create a long-term abatement plan.
Eveleth noted Wednesday that the new settlement agreement doesn’t mean that Congress is starting back at square one when it comes to fixing the hazards. He said the new health and safety survey and site management plan required by the agreement will draw heavily from the work that’s been ongoing over the past year.
The AOC “had various contractors perform studies for them. One was done on structural conditions, one was done on asbestos, one was done on communications systems and so forth. [The settlement agreement] serves a couple of purposes in that it brings that information together. Those were not wasted studies,” he said. “Obviously some conditions have changed since then and they have to bring all this into one document, which will then provide the basis for developing one site management plan.”