House appropriators press AoC for answers on Capitol tunnels

Two powerful House appropriators have sent questions to the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) about the crumbling asbestos-lined tunnels underneath the campus.

Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and ranking member David Obey (D-Wis.) joined a growing number of lawmakers in expressing concern last week about AoC staff working inside the tunnels and being exposed to hazardous materials.

“I am particularly concerned about [the presence] of asbestos,” Obey told The Hill.

The issue of asbestos exposure hit home for Obey, who, while working at his father’s floor covering business, found himself in contact with products that contained asbestos.

“I’m having my staff look into it,” he said.

Lewis has also requested more information about the tunnels, which contain utility pipes running from the Capitol Power Plant to the Capitol complex, providing steam to heat and cool the buildings.

“Both [appropriators] are watching it pretty closely,” said John Scofield, a spokesman for Lewis.

Lewis had contacted the AoC, requested information and instructed Architect Alan Hantman to respond to concerns raised by tunnel staff in a letter sent to several members of Congress last month.

Lewis and Obey echoed many of the concerns expressed by Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in a March 29 letter to Hantman, Scofield said.

The AoC is the office responsible for structural repair and maintenance of the Capitol complex.

Allard and Durbin, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, respectively, directed Hantman to create a short-term plan to mitigate problems inside the tunnels, which are up to 100 years old.

A 10-man team makes daily repairs to the tunnels. In their letter to Allard, Durbin, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the workers demanded protection from the deteriorating conditions.

They listed hazards including falling concrete and asbestos so thickly layered that they could scoop it up in handfuls. They did not receive breathing equipment to protect them against the asbestos until March 16.

The tunnel workers expressed deep concern about security in the tunnels, which lead into campus buildings.

“The U.S Capitol Police has made the entire tunnel system off limits to their staff because of the safety conditions,” the letter said. “Realize that it is on a regular basis we see people in the tunnels that we don’t know why they are down there.”

A Capitol Police spokeswoman said a special team of police is permitted to enter the tunnels.

The Allard-Durbin letter listed seven steps for Hantman, including ensuring that employees are protected from asbestos, minimizing the crumbling of concrete, providing emergency exits and securing the tunnels from unauthorized individuals.

In a separate March 29 letter, Mikulski expressed “outrage” and “disgust” after learning about the conditions underground and the “potentially serious security loophole that could endanger all of us who work in the Capitol and surrounding buildings.”

The Senate appropriators gave Hantman 10 days to respond, requested biweekly status reports and stipulated that each plan should include “appropriations estimates and a timetable for action.”

Mikulski demanded a written response from Hantman by April 1 outlining how the workers were being protected and how the security concerns were being addressed. Additionally, she stipulated that a full report on the issue is to be given to her by April 15.

The AoC had not responded to Mikulski as of press time yesterday, said the senator’s spokeswoman, Melissa Schwartz.

Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the AoC, said in an e-mail that the agency was working on timely follow-ups with the House and Senate oversight and appropriations committees.

“We have already been working on a number of these issues as well as looking at ways to accelerate the repair work,” she said.

The AoC has known about conditions in the tunnels for six years. In December 2000 the Office of Compliance (OoC), the independent agency responsible for enforcing health and safety laws in legislative-branch agencies, cited the AoC for neglect of the tunnel conditions.

Owing to the AoC’s failure to respond adequately to the first citation, OoC General Counsel Peter Eveleth filed an Occupational Health and Safety Act complaint against the office Feb. 28.