Lawmakers demand action on Capitol tunnel hazards

Four lawmakers lambasted the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) yesterday for neglecting to protect the health and safety of employees working in crumbling, asbestos-lined utility tunnels.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) sent a scathing letter to Architect Alan Hantman yesterday expressing her “disgust” at the conditions that his employees were subjected to inside the tunnels and the potential security risks that have been alleged.

“If it is true that U.S. Capitol Police are forbidden from patrolling the tunnels because of the hazardous conditions, then your failure to address these conditions also has created a potentially serious security loophole that could endanger all of us who work in the Capitol and surrounding buildings,” she wrote.

In a separate letter to Hantman, Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, instructed him to take a series of immediate steps to ensure his employees who work inside the underground tunnels are safe.

Mikulski, Allard, Durbin and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) issued statements in response to a letter sent to their offices by the 10-man team that maintain the miles of underground utility pipes that provide heat and steam from the Capitol Power Plant to the Capitol campus and surrounding areas.

Mikulski commended the workers for coming forward and warned that any retaliation toward them “would not be tolerated.”

It has been nearly six years since the AoC was alerted to the dilapidated condition of the tunnels and pipes through a citation from the Office of Compliance (OoC), the independent agency responsible for enforcing health and safety laws in legislative-branch agencies.

Mikulski demanded that at minimum the AoC protect the employees from asbestos by ameliorating conditions that had been cited in 2000, addressing security concerns and obtaining a “credible safety assessment.”

“I expect by April 1 to be advised in writing as to the steps you are taking to protect these workers, how the security concerns will be addressed pending completion of repairs and any other information you have regarding the concerns outlined in this letter,” she said.

Hoyer expressed shock and anger upon receiving the letter and urged Congress to investigate the matter quickly and thoroughly. He added that he would offer legislation to protect the workers further if it is needed.

“At a time when this Congress is grappling with the matter of compensating victims of asbestos exposure in a fair and compassionate manner, it is a scandal and outrage that employees in our own buildings have apparently been exposed to this toxic material,” he said in a release yesterday. “I intend to find out exactly what the scope of the problem is and what resources are needed to protect workers and ensure no harm comes to them as a result of exposure.”

The Allard-Durbin letter listed seven steps for Hantman to address in a short-term plan that he must submit to the subcommittee. They include ensuring that employees are adequately protected from asbestos, minimizing concrete falling from the aging walls, providing an emergency way out of the tunnels and securing the tunnels from any unauthorized individuals.

The letter indicated that a review of the employees’ pay rates should occur because most do not receive extra compensation for working in the hazardous conditions.

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

“A short-term plan addressing immediate health and safety concerns should be crafted immediately,” the letter said. “A long-term plan addressing the requirement to renovate the 100-year-old structures is needed within a reasonable time frame.”

The 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.”

“We will be following up with the chairman and Senator Durbin with a timely response to their requests,” Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the AoC, said in an e-mail. “We have already been working on a number of these issues as well as looking at ways to accelerate the repair work.”

OoC General Counsel Peter Eveleth filed an Occupational Health and Safety Act complaint Feb. 28 against the AoC, saying the agency had failed to respond adequately to the 2000 citation.

In addition to unstable, crumbling walls that could “collapse at any time without warning,” the complaint suggested that the communications systems inside the tunnels were so inadequate that a trapped worker might not be able to receive help should an emergency occur.