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This week marks the official conclusion of the case of 10 Architect of the Capitol employees who were exposed to asbestos for years.
Unofficially, the bitterness engendered by the case will continue to linger.
Thirteen years and more than $173 million later, with many of them suffering health complications likely to last a lifetime, the workers’ supervisor is less satisfied with the outcome than the agencies involved.
How this came to pass is a story, in part, about an agency Congress created to ensure safety in the legislative branch workplace that says it has never had adequate resources to do so.
The Office of Compliance is expected to close the books this week on the administrative complaint it filed in 2006, the first and only such complaint since its inception in 1995.
A prelude to a lawsuit, the complaint charged the Architect of the Capitol with failing to eliminate years-old health and safety hazards first discovered in 2000 in the miles-long underground utility system that provides steam and chilled water to Capitol Hill. Among those hazards were falling concrete, excessive heat and asbestos.
Veteran lawmakers and staffers should remember the incident well: Members of Congress were outraged, the national media weighed in and the tunnel workers were compensated an undisclosed amount for harassment they received in retaliation for whistle-blowing.
Under a settlement ultimately agreed to by the OOC and the AOC, the latter agency promised to complete repairs to the tunnels in five years. Millions of dollars later, the OOC says the AOC has fulfilled its obligations on time.
In official responses, both offices put a positive spin on the saga’s conclusion.
“The tunnel project shows what can be achieved when all of us on Capitol Hill work together toward a common goal,” OOC Executive Director Tamara Chrisler said.
“Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers is extremely proud of the efforts of AOC employees and contractors to make improvements to the utility tunnel system, and to have achieved the goals of the settlement agreement so successfully,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki added.
But ex-tunnel supervisor John Thayer, who now runs a taxidermy business in Maryland and still suffers from asbestos poisoning, said he feels little vindication.
“After 15 years of ignoring health issues, you don’t settle with anybody,” Thayer said of the OOC. “This announcement’s just paperwork. That’s all it is.”
As federal employees, Thayer and the others were barred under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act from suing their employer for personal injuries they incurred as a result of the conditions in the tunnels.
It took six years before the OOC filed an administrative complaint against the AOC, from the time the Office of Compliance issued its first citation in 2000 to the time it piled on two more at the beginning of 2006.
The OOC first threatened legal action in February 2006. The AOC agreed to settle 16 months later.
But what was happening during those years between citations? Why were there no follow-up visits to ensure that the warnings were being taken seriously? Could the AOC have been forced to address the hazards sooner?
In an interview with Roll Call, OOC General Counsel Pete Eveleth would not elaborate on what happened before he arrived at the agency in 2003.