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Out of the Tunnels, Still in the Dark

Congress’ Underground Workers Ailing, Face Uncertain Future

Beneath the marble floors of the Capitol lie more than two miles of utility tunnels, an aging maze of concrete, steam and dust that provides heating and cooling to the Congressional complex.

Two years ago, the 10 “tunnel rats” who spent their days working underground raised concerns about falling concrete and asbestos exposure. Some had worked there for decades; nine discovered they had scarring on their lungs.

Today, eight no longer work for the Architect of the Capitol. None has received compensation for their medical expenses, and all worry about how they will afford a lifetime of medication and visits to specialists.

“My fight is not with the AOC anymore,” said John Thayer, the former tunnel shop supervisor who helped lead the effort to warn Congress of the tunnels’ disrepair. “My problem is we were promised by Congress and by the Senate that this issue would be taken care of.”

Two years ago, Thayer attended hearings where Members called the conditions “criminal” and expressed outrage at the treatment of the workers. But the issue is now effectively dead on Capitol Hill; the last hearing specifically on the tunnels was held 18 months ago.

That’s partly because many consider it resolved. After the Office of Compliance filed its first-ever complaint about the tunnels, AOC officials entered into an agreement in 2007 to start correcting the safety violations first brought to their attention in 2000. They have until 2012 to fix the problems.

The 10 tunnel workers also received a settlement from the AOC in June 2007 — but only for the harassment they suffered at the hands of the agency after they sounded the alarm.

The amount and terms of that settlement are not publicly known, thanks to a stipulation that no one discuss it. But such awards usually bring in far less than personal injury complaints and are taxed as income.

Less than a month after the settlement was signed, most of the tunnel team left the agency.

Now the former workers worry about how they will pay for not only their medical expenses but also their mortgages and day-to-day living.

Frank Binns is better off than most. At 67, he receives his full retirement benefit and doesn’t have to worry about getting another job. He is quiet and friendly, loath to point too harsh a finger and hesitant to bring up past grievances.

Because he is in poor health, he doles out almost $600 in medical insurance a month. Almost 10 years in the Capitol tunnels — plus 30 working for the Asbestos Local Union — has left him with plural plaque, a thickening around the lungs caused by asbestos.

He gets winded easily, taking big huffs of air whenever he tries to mow the lawn or move a piece of furniture.

“Yeah, it worries me,” said his wife, Iris, who just celebrated her 48th year of marriage. “I worry if Frank’s going to wake up tomorrow. He never complains about anything. But I know that he has problems.”

Whether Binns’ issues come from his union work or the tunnels is impossible to say; he has spent a lifetime around the carcinogen, and it can take decades for damage to show up.

But Thayer, 44, spent about 23 years at the Capitol Power Plant, including about 16 in the tunnels. He uses an inhaler and wears an oxygen mask at night for sleep apnea, which he claims is caused by his scarred lungs.

He said he can no longer go hunting near his Maryland home or participate in the outdoor activities he used to enjoy. And he is worried that years of coming home covered in the dust of the tunnels may have affected his children, 18-year-old Michael and 22-year-old Christina.

Both had asthma when they were younger, and Michael still suffers from serious attacks.

“I used to come home so dusty and the first thing I would do was play with my son,” Thayer said. “He liked to wrastle when he was younger.”

Illness also runs rampant throughout the tunnel workers’ families, though their ailments have not been connected to asbestos exposure. Two wives (including Iris) have scarring of the lungs, two have cancer (including Thayer’s wife, Vikki, who’s in remission for lymphoma) and one has a blood disease, according to Thayer.

Since leaving the AOC, most of the workers have been trying to find another area of business, either because their condition prohibits more tunnel work or because they haven’t been able to find another government job.

One goes to a diesel mechanic school; another works as a temporary government contractor. Two are retired (including Binns), and one is on disability. At least one is unemployed, with no insurance.

Thayer went to school in Pennsylvania for taxidermy after leaving the AOC and has since started his own business called Big John’s Taxidermy, preparing deer, foxes, mountain lions and other animals for local hunters.

“This has never had to do [with] money, Thayer said. “Me and my guys are very self-reliant on each other. If we don’t have to have it, we don’t.”

Thayer has become involved in the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, a nonprofit that has helped facilitate conversations on the Hill between Members and the workers. He has met with Members in the hope that Congress would compensate them in a resolution — an idea that has emerged a few times but never gotten very far.

Iris Binns said she is still disturbed that Congress seemed to quickly forget the workers, who spent years ensuring those in the Capitol had heat and water by working in tunnels with no communication system, crumbling concrete and pipes covered in asbestos.

“They just pushed it aside,” she said. “That made me mad more than anything because we have to live with it.”

If Binns and his colleagues had worked for a private company, they would be able to pursue a lawsuit against their employer for negligence that led to injury. But they were federal employees, and the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act prohibits them from doing so.

Instead, they can file for workers’ compensation, a system that provides medical expenses and sometimes partial salary for workers injured on the job.

Like all things government, it’s a bureaucratic and sometimes long process. Asbestos exposure is also more complicated to prove than, for example, a worker losing his arm in a factory.

Thayer said he has been denied worker’s compensation for other incidents in the past, and every lawyer he has visited has refused to take his case. His wife jokes that she’s seen the office of every lawyer in the mesothelioma commercials on television.

In fact, not many law firms take on federal employees as clients in injury cases because workers’ compensation usually doesn’t result in a payout for the attorney. Calls to a half-dozen employment law firms did not turn up a single lawyer who did.

The difficulty of proving asbestos exposure and the fact that doctors sometimes disagree on a diagnosis makes getting workers’ compensation even more difficult.

For Thayer and his colleagues, proving they were exposed to asbestos has been an uphill battle. The AOC first denied that the workers had been exposed to asbestos, and Congress’ attending physician told Members that the workers showed no evidence of asbestosis or any other disease caused by inhaling asbestos fibers.

But several members of the tunnel team got a second opinion from the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. Dr. Michael Harbut told Members the workers had signs of pulmonary and respiratory disease likely caused by their exposure.

The AOC soon pulled them out of the tunnels.

Now, the agency is in the middle of a five-year plan to fix the tunnels, including the abatement of asbestos. Both the AOC and the OOC say they are on track, and those who work in the tunnels are now required to wear protective clothing.

So far, the AOC has installed communication systems throughout the five tunnels and expects to finish removing asbestos installation from pipes by 2010, said spokeswoman Eva Malecki. Officials have also begun putting in ventilation systems to cool areas that once reached 160 degrees and are installing new exits.

“It’s a very amicable and very forthcoming relationship,” OOC General Counsel Peter Eveleth, who filed the original complaint against the AOC in 2006, said of dealings between his office the AOC. “There are no bumps in the road at all.”

But the AOC won’t release its quarterly reports on the process. The Government Accountability Office, meanwhile, is keeping an eye on the agency’s reports but hasn’t independently confirmed the process.

“They have active projects going on to remedy the issues,” said Terrell Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues. But, he added, “we haven’t done the work to know if they’re on track or not.”

It’s also unclear whether the five years of work will last long for tunnels that date back to 1908, 1930 and 1950.

In a fiscal 2009 budget request, AOC officials referred to their current work — estimated to cost almost $300 million — as “short-term improvements.”

The “long-term improvements,” they wrote, would start after 2012.

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