The architect strikes back

The Architect of the Capitol (AoC) launched an offensive during a Senate oversight hearing yesterday to counter allegations that the office knowingly endangered 10 employees by allowing them to be exposed to carcinogenic asbestos.

Attending Physician John Eisold testified to Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s Legislative Branch Subcommittee, that in examining the charts of the X-rays of the tunnel personnel he found no signs of asbestosis, a disease caused by exposure to the substance.

“Potential exposure to asbestos is what we are talking about,” he said. “Medical surveillance is to identify those people who may have some adverse consequences to that exposure. If there’s adverse consequences, in this particular case you’d call it asbestosis. It’s a very specific diagnoses based upon very specific X-ray findings. We have no such findings.

“We have people we have cleared to work in that environment, and we have no adverse consequences noted that could be due to asbestosis.”

Allard inquired whether the tunnel workers should seek a second opinion if they think that could have a workplace-related illness.

“I don’t think a second opinion is necessary,” Eisold said, adding that he would never advise against one should any member of the tunnel team want another assessment of their X-rays.

Public Health Service representative Capitan Joseph Terra testified to Allard in May that the tunnel team and the contractors hired to fix the crumbling utility tunnels were not following AoC safety and decontamination policies, but AoC Chief Operating Officer Stephen Ayers said yesterday that the workers are compliant now.

He told Allard that decontamination procedures recommended by the Office of Compliance were put into effect Tuesday.

“The Office of Compliance did point out that our procedures didn’t require showering and that they felt that a shower was required. We have subsequently changed those procedures, yesterday, and are now appropriately following procedures,” Ayers said.

“As of yesterday?” Allard asked.

Ayers confirmed that but said employees complied with similar procedures before that.

To prevent the spread of dust, tunnel workers are supposed to remove their work clothes in a “dirty room,” shower and then dress in clean clothing in another room.

Ayers said that tunnel personnel had been briefed about the new decontamination procedures that morning, but as he was testifying the crew members sat shaking their heads.

Later the AoC clarified Ayers’s statement in an e-mail: “When asked if the Tunnel Shop personnel were briefed regarding the new decontamination procedures, our understanding was that they were given a briefing this morning. We were informed immediately following the hearing by Tunnel Shop personnel that the briefing did not happen.”

The e-mail said the AoC had provided the clarification to Allard, committee staff, tunnel personnel and the media.

Members of the tunnel crew expressed outrage after the hearing about the AoC officials’ testimony.

“I’m appalled that we filed a safety complaint and have to listen to inaccurate responses and lies to the senators,” said John Thayer, the supervisor for the tunnel employees. “We don’t have a chance to respond. They are not lying about small things; they are lying about life safety issues.”

Allard noted that $27.6 million had been included in an emergency supplemental bill for tunnel repairs.

The senator also heard testimony about the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), which continues to fall behind its construction schedule.

Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman testified that after consulting with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), contractors and the fire marshal, the agency moved the opening date from April next year to July.

Terrell Dorn, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure, testified that the AoC, which oversees Capitol facilities, consistently missed critical milestones but added that the new timetable seemed “reasonable at this time.”

Of 14 critical CVC milestones, only one was completed early. One was on time, and the other 12 were late.

He compared the CVC to his evening commute, saying, “I can tell you from experience that there are 10 sequential stops on the way home and if you don’t get to those stops on time by the time I get to Fredericksburg I’m going to be late. I can thank the conductor for getting me off the [train] … but my supper’s still going to be cold. The CVC is the same way.”

Dorn said the GAO believes that the 580,000-square-foot CVC can be completed within its $584 million estimate. So far, $530 million has been provided for it.