Architect admits failing to protect workers

Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman yesterday admitted that he did not do enough to protect workers in crumbling asbestos-lined utility tunnels.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), angrily told Hantman, “We knew there was asbestos, we knew that it was hazardous … and literally waited years before we provided safety devices for these workers to protect them. How can we explain that to the workers and their families?”

Hantman conceded, “We have ongoing inspections going — but clearly they were not adequate.”

“That is cold comfort,” Durbin retorted. “We have done a great disservice to these workers’ families. I want to say to you point blank, if you do not come forward with requests for life-safety measures, [such as] protective devices to protect these workers, then you are not doing your duty.”

The hazards were brought to the committee’s attention recently by the legislative branch’s Office of Compliance, which filed an unprecedented Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) complaint citing the architect’s office as negligent.

As first reported by The Hill, tunnels under the Capitol, some 100 years old, are in such disrepair that they could cave in and trap and injure employees, union officials say.

The OoC issued a citation against the AoC in December 2000 for failing to maintain the tunnels, which contain pipes that provide steam and chilled water to the Capitol.

Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) instructed Hantman to work quickly to rectify the problem: “We really have to get after this. Asbestos is OK as long as it is not … moving, and it’s moving — the walls are crumbling. I’m worried about the potential risks to the workers here.”

The architect’s office has requested $1.75 million in next year’s budget to fix the tunnels. Hantman said his office is working to address day-to-day concerns and long-term repairs.

But Durbin asked, “Did you feel this was a life-threatening situation?” and reiterated the question until Hantman admitted that some of the conditions, such as crumbling walls, could threaten workers.

Hantman said tunnel workers knew about asbestos issues but Durbin expressed shock that the agency only recently gave them protective breathing equipment.

Hantman testified that since the 2000 citation his office has taken steps to improve conditions, including repairing 600 feet under Constitution Avenue, contracted for an inspection of 19 tunnel exits and developed an “egress-improvements work plan.”

Injury and illness among workers for his office had decreased for the fifth year in a row, Hantman said. He added that concerns about disrupting traffic had delayed fixes to infrastructure and asked, “How much construction fatigue can Congress take?”

Allard and Durbin said disruption is better than unsafe working conditions.

Both appropriators agreed last week to let Hantman divert $1.8 million to “ structural repairs, asbestos abatement and emergency-egress repairs in the tunnels.”

The committee also received the latest price estimate from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for the Capitol Visitor Center — $556 million, which is up $1 million because of the cost of testing fire-protection systems.

Terrell Dorn, the GAO’s assistant director of physical infrastructure, said that the formal opening date projected by the architect’s office of April 2007 for the main project is “optimistic” and that May is more likely.

The GAO also disputes the projected May opening date for the House and Senate expansions, saying mid-August or early September is closer to the mark.

Allard expressed concern about continued delays and design changes.

About $528 million has been appropriated for the visitors center. The architect’s office has requested an additional $20.6 million to complete it and $1 million for startup and operational costs. The request is $5 million less than the GAO recommended.