Contractors were exposed to asbestos

Contractors at the Capitol Power Plant utility tunnels were exposed to asbestos for almost a month while working without proper safety equipment, according to two tunnel safety reports and internal e-mails obtained by The Hill.

Contractors in a section of the “R” tunnel known as the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) Containment Area had been working without asbestos-safety equipment with the understanding that the area was free of the carcinogenic substance.

However, in two safety reports, issued on March 22 and March 27, asbestos was said to be present in the CVC Containment Area.

“There is exposed asbestos on the steam pipe in the CVC section,” read the two daily reports, which described hazards within the tunnels that carry steam and chilled water to buildings on Capitol Hill.

On March 1, an Architect of the Capitol (AoC) employee was made aware of the exposed asbestos in the CVC Containment Area, but the contractors continued to enter the area without protective suits or respirators.

“We … discovered uncovered asbestos insulation on the top of the B (west) steam main in the CVC Containment Area,” an Entech Engineering contractor wrote to an AoC employee on March 1. “The spot is located at the North end of the containment, between steam supports 242 and 243.”

In an e-mail sent March 20, however, a former AoC employee denied that there was asbestos in the CVC section of the tunnels.

 “Please delete the note under the R Tunnel that states that ‘Gilbane says there is still asbestos on the pipe wrap in the CVC section,’” a former AoC engineering head who is currently an AoC contractor, Scott Birkhead, wrote to Lead Tunnel Inspector Leonid Troitski in the e-mail. “This was actually a comment that originally came from Entech, but it was later determined that it was in another section of the tunnel. Gilbane has done an inspection of the CVC portion of the tunnel and not identified any exposed asbestos.”

Twenty-one people were carbon-copied on the e-mail, including acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers.

Although Birkhead’s e-mail denied there was asbestos in the containment, the AoC said Monday that the asbestos problem had been rectified.

“The attached report has been modified to show there is no exposed asbestos in the CVC section of R Tunnel.” The repair was completed last week, wrote an AoC employee, Carolyn Imhof-Hoffelder, in an e-mail to several other AoC employees Monday morning.

The AoC did not comment for this article.

In February, former CVC Project Executive Bob Hixon told the House Appropriations Committee’s legislative branch panel that they had created a containment area “so [contractors] could work in that area and not be concerned with any issues that were being discussed with regards to the other tunnels.”

Many of the pipes in the utility tunnels are insulated with asbestos contained under a protective covering. When the covering is broken or torn by falling concrete or movement of the pipes, the asbestos may become exposed.

A member of the AoC’s 10-man tunnel crew, who requested anonymity for fear of further retaliation, questioned the agency’s handling of the situation.

“[Scott Birkhead] wrote that to the contractors because it was going to be a big deal,” a member of the Capitol Power Plant tunnel crew told The Hill. “It was his way to take it out of the daily report. He told them to take it out and they didn’t.”

Members of the 10-man crew that routinely monitors the tunnels below the Hill were exposed to asbestos for years before the AoC gave them safety equipment. The Office of Compliance (OoC) notified the AoC in 2000 that there was asbestos in the tunnels, but the tunnel crew did not start wearing gear until last year. The OoC filed a complaint against the AoC and its handling of the tunnel situation in early 2006.

The member of the tunnel crew said that the contractors were deceived: “For a year, every contractor and person working in the CVC [containment section] thought they were working in an asbestos-free area. Everybody in that containment thought it was supposed to be asbestos-free, and it wasn’t.”