For first time, tunnel employees to testify on asbestos exposure

The supervisor of the Capitol Hill power plant utility tunnels will testify before a Senate panel Thursday about his exposure to asbestos and other hazardous working conditions while working as a Capitol Hill employee.

Tunnel employee John Thayer’s testimony at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) employment and workforce subcommittee hearing will mark the first time that a member of the 10-man team has been permitted to go on the legislative record about his prolonged exposure to asbestos, a known carcinogen.

“It’s the first time tunnel workers [will be quoted] in the legislative record,” said Jillian Aldebron, an attorney working with the tunnel crew. “It’s the first time they have been invited to testify.”

Thayer said yesterday that he plans on telling the subcommittee members about his crew’s daily working conditions and the deterioration of their health as a result of servicing the five miles of utility tunnels beneath Capitol Hill.

“What I want the senators to know is that the tunnel workers didn’t put the asbestos in the tunnels and that somebody needs to be held responsible for the conditions that we work in,” Thayer said yesterday. “There is a lack of upper management with the ability to monitor the maintenance of the asbestos that is already present inside [government buildings].”

Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) is poised to reintroduce a bill that would ban the importation and production of asbestos in the United States. The measure, which was introduced in the 107th and 108th terms of Congress, would fall under the jurisdiction of the Environment and Public Works Committee, headed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Boxer and Murray are scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon introducing the legislation. Thayer has been invited to speak at the press conference.

Boxer will help push the bill through her committee, said Bill Kamela, a spokesman for the HELP panel.

Meanwhile, Thayer said that working conditions have continued to deteriorate and that an internal draft of a Feb. 13 Architect of the Capitol (AoC) quarterly report to the House and Senate Appropriations committees is inaccurate.

The report, obtained by The Hill, is one of several that congressional appropriators demanded last year to detail the progress within the utility tunnels. AoC has repeatedly downplayed the concerns raised by the tunnel workers.

“My employees are subjected to more hazardous conditions than they were when we first filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance [in March 2006],” Thayer said.

Due to the inefficiency of AoC contractors, egress points have been cut off and the temperature inside the tunnels has risen, Thayer added.

“The tunnel temperatures have increased 30 degrees … It is over 160 degrees,” he said. 

Thayer, who has worked inside the tunnels for over 22 years, said the process of repairing the crumbling infrastructure and the abatement of carcinogenic asbestos has nearly stagnated in several of the five utility tunnels located underneath the Capitol complex.

“Work is only being done in the [one] tunnel,” he said, directly disputing claims that work was being completed in each tunnel.

He added that the funding levels identified in the report were also unrealistic and said the millions of dollars in last year’s emergency supplemental appropriations bill was being wasted on surveys and would do nothing to repair the physical conditions.

“Management’s estimate of $133.4 million to fix the problems inside the tunnels is not even close,” Thayer said. “They are about $200 million off.”

However, AoC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said that the report’s findings are still in the draft stages.

“It is still a draft report, and the work discussed therein is still ongoing,” Malecki said. “The project managers will continue to work with the tunnel shop personnel to address their concerns.”

Last year, then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman said the tunnels could cost up to $200 million to repair.

House and Senate appropriators have scheduled three hearings this week that will focus on AoC’s budget.

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