Tunnel workers, Public Citizen team up on asbestos

Six members of the Capitol Power Plant’s tunnel crew expressed concern and frustration yesterday about the Architect of the Capitol’s (AoC) failure to protect them from exposure to carcinogenic asbestos while working inside the crumbling infrastructure.

The men spoke at an event called by Public Citizen, the liberal watchdog group, after a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act of 2006.

Jillian Aldebron, legislative counsel for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said members of the tunnel crew made sick by asbestos exposure might not be eligible for compensation under the bill. The bill, which Public Citizen opposes, would create a privately financed trust fund for victims of carcinogenic asbestos exposure.

A spokeswoman from the Judiciary Committee did not return a call for comment.

Tunnel supervisor John Thayer described the asbestos level in the tunnel as so dangerous that an employee could “pick it up and put it in their pockets.” The utility tunnels house pipes that carry steam and chilled water from the Capitol Power Plant to the Capitol campus.

Eight of 10 tests conducted by AMA Analytical Services, an environmental laboratory based in Lanham, Md., for the AoC found asbestos levels above the personal-exposure limit set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). AMA reported its analysis to the AoC between April 3 and April 17.

One sample registered at 3.491 fibers per cubic centimeter of air, significantly higher than the OSHA limit of an average of 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter over an eight-hour work shift. Other high samples registered at 0.462, 0.174 and 0.168 fibers per cubic centimeter.

Thayer expressed frustration that OSHA guidelines that protect federal employees from asbestos exposure do not entirely apply to the legislative branch, which is overseen by the Office of Compliance.

“In the legislative branch, we don’t know what OSHA is,” Thayer said. “We’ve been told” by management that the rules don’t apply.

Thayer said he and his nine employees “were always under the assumption that we were being protected.” Thayer has worked in the tunnels for 22 years.

Routine tests for the asbestos began only after he and the other members of the crew wrote to members of Congress demanding safer conditions, he said.

“The samples we were getting … were 30 times over the legal limit,” Thayer said. “I’ve been there for 22 years. I’ve never wore a respirator until March 16, 2006. I have had problems with my lungs.”

Thayer, who does not smoke, told the group that during a physical in 1998 he was told that his lungs were severely damaged and have extensive scarring.

Scarring of the lung tissue is a symptom of asbestosis, a respiratory disease caused by asbestos exposure. Asbestos exposure has also been linked to mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer that can develop 20-40 years after exposure.

“My lung age at 33 years old was 118 years old,” Thayer said he was told after his physical.

“We want resolution,” he said, adding that the studies and surveys being performed by the AoC and its contractors are not making his crew safer. The AoC is responsible for maintenance of the Capitol campus.

Four crew members are undergoing treatment for respiratory difficulties, Thayer added.

Christian Raley, a crew member, said, “AoC seems to think that it is OK to be exposed to asbestos for a limited time; for years we did not wear anything. I have to wait 35 years to figure out what’s going to happen to me.”

OSHA stipulates that employees who are exposed to airborne concentrations of asbestos higher than the agency’s limit must wear protective equipment such as respirators.

AoC officials have testified to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch that since few tests were done until recently the agency could not confirm that workers were exposed to high rates of asbestos.

Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the AoC, said the agency continues to abate asbestos in the tunnels.

“This is in addition to ongoing maintenance of insulation covering and encapsulation and minor abatement of the asbestos insulation in other tunnels,” she said.