Sen. Feinstein urges Ayers to address ‘unabated hazards’ in Capitol tunnels

Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent acting Architect of the Capitol (AoC) Steven Ayers a strongly worded letter Monday, urging him to explain how his agency is addressing ongoing problems related to the deteriorating utility tunnels that run beneath Capitol Hill.

Feinstein prompted Ayers to explain reports that the AoC has not been addressing “unabated hazards” in the utility tunnels, which are structurally unstable and filled with asbestos. The Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels carry steam and chilled water to heat and cool the Capitol complex.

The letter marks the first time Feinstein, who has oversight of the AoC as chairwoman of the committee, has weighed in on the issue.

A hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel’s Employment and Workforce subcommittee last week raised “some serious doubts about how the issue is being addressed,” the staff director for the Rules and Administration Committee, Howard Gantman, said.

Gantman said committee staffers had a meeting with AoC representatives earlier this week and will continue working closely with them on the issue.

In the letter, Feinstein expressed concern that the AoC has not adequately confronted tunnel hazards nor worker health concerns.

“Worker health and safety must be of the utmost concern to the AoC, and to the Capitol Hill community,” Feinstein wrote. “Therefore, I ask you [to] raise the priority of this matter and proceed as fast as possible.”

The AoC stressed that the tunnel issues remain a top concern.

 “The AoC remains fully committed to ensuring employee safety, to solving the utility tunnel issues, and to keeping Congress informed of our progress,” AoC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said.

Members of the 10-man tunnel crew have argued that the AoC failed to protect them from exposure to the dangerous conditions inside the tunnels, resulting in permanent health problems.

Feinstein also questioned the AoC’s handling of $27.6 million for tunnel repairs appropriated in an emergency supplemental last April.

“I would like to know how you have allocated that appropriation and how [you] would allocate your FY2008 request for tunnel repairs,” she wrote.
Malecki said $25 million of the $27.6 million in emergency supplemental funding has been obligated.

Feinstein requested that Ayers provide her with a “specific asbestos abatement plan and a specific timeline for fixing these problems.”

She said the “plan should include your actions to protect the employees who work in the tunnels and ameliorate all of the conditions for which citations have been issued.”

Additionally, Feinstein called into question reports that, by allowing asbestos to filter through to the streets of Capitol Hill, AoC contractors are not following Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

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