By Jackie Kucinich - 05/04/06 12:00 AM EDT
Several answers that the Architect of the Capitol’s office gave key Senate appropriators last week regarding dilapidated utility tunnels were inaccurate, according to testimony the Office of Compliance (OoC) provided to a Senate subcommittee yesterday.
While the Appropriations the Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch hearing was meant to review the budget requests for the OoC, the Government Printing Office and the Congressional Budget Office, much of the meeting was devoted to continuing a discussion about the condition of the underground, crumbling utility tunnels, which fall under the Architect of the Capitol’s supervision.
OoC General Counsel Peter Eveleth testified that he could not say with certainty whether the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) was using methods approved by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inside utility tunnels. He was responding to questions from subcommittee Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.).
“The AoC [officials] said they are using OSHA-approved methods. Are they?” Allard asked.
“Yes and no,” Eveleth said.
He explained that the AoC has not provided his agency with details on what the men who maintain the tunnels do in them. The tunnels house pipes from the Capitol Power Plant that provide steam and chilled water to the Capitol complex.
When Allard inquired as to whether the workers were being adequately protected from asbestos exposure, Eveleth said it would depend on the degree of exposure and what kind of protection was being used.
Right now anyone who enters the tunnels is required to wear a half-facemask respirator as protection from inhaling carcinogenic asbestos that falls from the ceiling and walls inside the structures, but more protection could be needed if the levels are extremely high, Eveleth testified.
An analysis of readings from inside the tunnels showed that at least one reading registered an asbestos level 30 times the OSHA limit. Eveleth said that, depending on what conditions are like in the tunnels, workers might be better protected wearing a full-facemask respirator or additional protective equipment.
The OoC, which ensures that legislative-branch agencies follow federal safety and health standards, is conducting its own asbestos testing.
Stephen Ayers, chief operating officer for the AoC, testified April 27 that half-mask respirators would protect workers from exposure. But Eveleth said it is questionable whether the AoC truly had decontamination methods in place for workers entering and leaving the tunnels. Ayers had testified that the AoC is OSHA-compliant.
Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the AoC, said staff had incorrectly informed Ayers that the proper OSHA procedures were in place before the hearing.
“Shortly after the report on the tunnels was provided to Congress, OSHA-compliant requirements for decontamination procedures were issued for the type of work being conducted in the tunnels,” Malecki said.
The report was provided to appropriators April 10.
According to an April 14 e-mail between Capitol Power Plant Director Mark Weiss and Susan Adams, the executive officer for facility management, “The asbestos procedures currently in place do not comply with” OSHA standards.
The e-mail cited a three-stage decontamination procedure that workers are supposed to follow before leaving the tunnels, a procedure that the Capitol Power Plant management is not enforcing.
Workers are supposed to exit the tunnels into a “dirty room” to remove contaminated clothing and equipment. Next, employees are supposed to shower and enter a “clean room" containing uncontaminated clothing, according to OSHA requirements. OSHA requires that procedure when an area is considered “regulated” or contains an “above the standard” level of asbestos.
Malecki said procedures for installing decontamination sites will be formulated this week.
“Senator Allard is very concerned about the answers he received at today's hearing,” said Allard spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. “He expects the Architect of the Capitol to provide specific information to him — quickly — regarding the workers' exposure and the other issues raised at today's hearing.”
On Feb. 28, Eveleth filed an unprecedented Occupational Safety and Health Act complaint against the AoC for neglecting to respond to a December 2000 citation that instructed Architect Alan Hantman to have the crumbling tunnels repaired.
He said that the AoC filed a “tentative plan” with the OoC but that, after reviewing it, the oversight agency found that the amount of time and funding devoted to the problem was insufficient.
“It was not possible to do repairs in such a short order,” Eveleth told Allard. “No intermediate repairs [were indicated in the report]. Because of that, we found it necessary to file a complaint.”
After inquiring as to why there was no immediate follow-up to the first complaint in December 2000, Allard asked Eveleth, “Were you just taking the word of the architect?”
Eveleth replied that because he was not in his current position until 2003 he could not adequately answer the question, although he indicated that the AoC was given a number of years to make the initial changes.
Since the complaint was filed, the OoC has had little information from the AoC, on the advice of the latter’s legal counsel, according to Eveleth.
Allard was shocked to learn that the AoC had only given the OoC its 50-page page plan to repair the tunnels yesterday; the subcommittee had received it last month.
Eveleth said he would make an evaluation of the plan available to the subcommittee as soon as possible.
Malecki defended the AoC and said the agency had been following the advice of its counsel.
“A copy of the report was provided to the OoC in response to their recent request,” she said.