AoC tries to reassure workers on safety of utility tunnels

The management of the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) is working hard to protect the safety of workers and to correct a multitude of hazards inside underground utility tunnels, the head of the agency assured his staff in an April 7 memo.

“Much has been reported in the newspapers recently about the conditions of our utility tunnels,” the letter began. It goes on to explain that since 2001 the agency has taken steps to improve the conditions in the tunnels, which have been identified by the Office of Compliance (OoC) as extremely hazardous to the employees working in them.

Architect Alan Hantman sought to explain to AoC employees that the agency is taking several steps to mitigate the problems and that more than $9.17 million had been dedicated to tunnel repairs. The memo said that renovations of the tunnels began in 1999 and so far have included removing areas of loose concrete and providing emergency shoring to help hold unstable walls.

On Feb. 28, the OoC, which works to ensure that the legislative branch meets federal standards for worker safety and health, issued an unprecedented Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) complaint against the AoC for failing to attend to tunnels where employees labor amid piles of asbestos and concrete falling from the ceiling.

A closed-door pre-hearing conference regarding the complaint was held Monday at the Office of Compliance.

In March, the 10-man team that maintains the utility tunnels, which supply steam to heat and cool the Capitol complex, wrote a letter to several lawmakers detailing the extreme conditions they work in every day. The letter alleged that the AoC had done little to fix crumbling infrastructure, abate carcinogenic asbestos and improve communication systems inside the tunnels.

The AoC memo appeared to respond to many of the complaints raised by tunnel employees. Hantman said that the director of utilities and power-plant operations, Mark Weiss, had begun meeting with the workers to address their concerns.

“One concern they raised was asbestos exposure,” the staff memo said. “In 2005, asbestos was removed throughout one tunnel, and ambient air samples taken in another tunnel last year showed levels below OSHA’s permissible exposure limit,” referring to rules set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In their letter, the tunnel employees said that the only testing ever done in the tunnels was in March 2006 and that AoC management had ignored prior testing requests.

The memo added that tunnel personnel are required to wear protective respirators, a provision that was only implemented March 16, according to an employee letter.

An AoC spokeswoman said the memo issued to employees was a routine staff communication.

“We issue these types of communication on a regular basis regarding programs, issues and policies,” said the spokeswoman, Eva Malecki.

The tunnels run from the Capitol Power Plant to the House and Senate office buildings, the Capitol and other surrounding buildings. They are controlled and managed by Hantman’s office.

The correspondence to AoC staff came one day after Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) sent a scathing letter to Hantman. That letter denounced information provided to her by his agency regarding a plan to fix the tunnels as “insufficient and unreliable.”

“Requesting more money, initiating new evaluations and studying new methods and technologies do nothing to protect these workers from hazardous conditions now,” she said. “The fact that no one has been injured by falling concrete to date cannot possibly justify or excuse your failure to address these hazardous conditions promptly, and to take whatever steps necessary to protect workers while repairs are being made.”

Hantman conceded in his letter that the OoC deemed a hazard-mitigation plan developed by the AoC “not aggressive enough,” resulting in the OSHA complaint.

Malecki said that the information, delivered to Mikulski’s office March 31, was only preliminary and that a more detailed plan is pending.

The AoC memo details several improvements to the underground communications system since 2003, despite allegations from tunnel employees that the system is so unreliable that the Capitol Police will not allow rank-and-file officers to enter the tunnels.

Hantman said: “The system was installed throughout the main utility tunnels in the complex. … The system allows the use of AoC radios in those areas of the tunnels where it is installed.”

He added that last fall a maintenance contract was implemented to keep the system working properly.

The lack of an adequate communication system was also detailed in the February OSHA complaint.

The memo promised that the AoC would continue to provide information regarding the tunnel personnel and the development of a plan “to address certain issues in a logistical sense.” The AoC said it would submit the plan to the Senate Legislative Branch Subcommittee, which exercises oversight over the AoC and other legislative-branch agencies.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who chairs the subcommittee, is pleased with the information he received from the AoC in response to a letter he and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sent last month demanding a plan for the repair of the tunnels, Allard’s spokeswoman said.

“The information provides him with a starting point from which to go forward on the much-needed improvements to these utility tunnels,” Allard spokeswoman Angela de Rocha said in an e-mail last week.

She added that Allard had not had the time to review the information thoroughly and that, according to the report, it will cost millions of dollars to fix the tunnels.

The subcommittee plans to address the issue at an April 27 subcommittee hearing on the Capitol Visitor Center, she said.