Tunnel not cleared of asbestos, as AoC claimed in Senate testimony

Asbestos discovered three years ago in the entrance to utility tunnels in the Longworth House Office Building basement is still there, according to a U.S. Public Health Service report for the Architect of the Capitol (AoC).

The July 10 “Capitol Power Plant Steam Tunnels Condition and Hazard Assessment Progress Report” states that asbestos in the “duct insulation” has been neither repaired nor abated.

Federal Occupational Health, a division of the Public Health Service, recommended that the insulation where the asbestos was found in the “V” tunnel be removed or abated. To meet security concerns, tunnels are identified by letters in the report.

The asbestos problem was detailed in a June 2003 report titled “Longworth House Office Building Comprehensive Asbestos Survey.”

The tunnel where the carcinogenic substance was found opens into a room on a lower floor of Longworth, according to a source close to the project who declined to give the exact location.

The utility tunnels, containing pipes bringing steam and chilled water to the Capitol campus, are connected to all the House and Senate office buildings and the Capitol to heat and cool them. Tunnel entrances are behind closed doors that require access cards, but many of the doors open into areas well-traveled by staff.

The continued presence of asbestos in the V tunnel contradicts an AoC official’s statement to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee on April 27. Stephen Ayers, the AoC’s chief operating officer, testified to subcommittee Chairman Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) that there was no asbestos in the tunnel.

Ayers said a series of asbestos samples were taken from several tunnels “with the exception of the V tunnel, which of course does not have asbestos in it. It’s been completely abated.”

“Yes, that’s the one that you just worked on recently here?” Allard asked.

“Yes. That’s correct,” Ayers answered.

The tunnel workers were notified yesterday that they must now wear protective clothing and breathing equipment in the V tunnel; the protective measures were not required in that area before the report.

Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the AoC contended that the “V” tunnel had been abated in 2005 and the section noted in the report had recently become friable. She said the area was not accessible to the general public.

“A small section of ductwork in that tunnel has asbestos insulation that the tunnel shop took samples of last week,” she said. As a precaution, Capitol Power Plant management is requiring proper protective equipment be worn in the V tunnel while the area is tested and evaluated.”

She added, “The Senate Appropriations Committee has been notified of this recent development.”

The progress report details different problems in five of the six utility tunnels. The B tunnel was not inspected because it was being worked on, according to the report.

Conditions in the Y tunnel were described as particularly difficult and unusually hot.

“Airflow was barely noticeable in most of the tunnel,” the report said, “The temperature in the tunnel seemed high, even though only a single steam line was charged at the time of the inspection.”

Fans, which once helped cool the tunnels (in which temperatures sometimes top 140 degrees), have been turned off for months to avoid spreading asbestos dust into other areas.

The report also described the difficult of working in the tunnels because employees have to crawl under pipes into confined areas.

“The physical configuration of the tunnel forces entrants to crawl under pipe supports to navigate the length of the tunnel,” the report said. “At the entrance to the main yellow tunnel, the entrants have to slide on their stomachs over a piece of plywood to enter the space.”

Asbestos, or “suspect materials” presumed to contain asbestos, was also found in the pipe systems in four other tunnels, prompting Federal Occupational Health to collect at least three samples from each to provide “comprehensive data for all of the tunnels without presumptions.”

The report also recommended that all damaged pipe insulation be repaired and abated.

A spokeswoman for the AoC, the legislative-branch agency that maintains Capitol facilities, did not return emails for comment.