The asbestos emergency that temporarily closed the House side of the Capitol was a scary ordeal for Architect of the Capitol and Capitol Police employees working the overnight shift.
Union officials representing workers at both agencies told CQ Roll Call they are concerned about potential exposure to the human carcinogen, which can cause chronic lung disease as well as cancer. The Office of Compliance, an agency created by Congress to ensure safety in the legislative branch workplace, has been asked to inspect the incident for an alleged violation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
Asbestos fibers and other debris were released into the air around 2:30 a.m. or 3 a.m., when AOC contractors removing insulation containing asbestos from pipes and valves on the Capitol's fourth floor had an accident above the East Grand Staircase. Most of Capitol Hill learned about the incident hours later, when doors to the House side of the Capitol were closed as engineers and certified industrial hygienists evaluated the scene. Wally Reed, president of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 626, which represents approximately 500 laborers, custodians, gardeners and other workers in the House and Senate office buildings, Capitol and Botanic Garden, said he has made multiple attempts to get a list from the AOC of employees who were exposed and the level of exposure, but no list has been provided.
"We are especially concerned with the bargaining unit employees who might have been exposed," Reed said in an email. "I was initially told there was minimal exposure to only a handful of employees."
AOC spokeswoman Laura Condeluci said the agency does not comment on personnel issues, but she provided a statement saying the safety of employees, congressional staff and visitors is the AOC's top priority.
"The morning of the incident, a third-party certified industrial hygienist evaluated the scene and conducted air samples, the results of which were well below the regulatory limit for general space occupancy," Condeluci said in an email. Jim Konczos, chairman of the Capitol Police Labor Committee's executive board, said one officer was "shaken up" after being exposed to the dust, and is considering hiring a lawyer. The union claims the department failed to warn or protect officers from exposure, saying no advance notice of the spill was radioed out to officers from command.
At least three Capitol Police personnel were in the area of the potential release, department spokesman Shennell Antrobus confirmed to CQ Roll Call. Those exposed to the debris and dust were decontaminated with a highly efficient particulate air filter vacuum, and sent to exchange their uniforms for a fresh set. Antrobus also noted that the Capitol Police complied with AOC air sampling, waiting until the area was deemed safe to traverse.
On that morning, officers allegedly were confronted by an angry Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who barged through the police line established to prevent entry to the House side of the Capitol.
Scott Mulligan, deputy executive director with the OOC, confirmed that the agency has received three requests for inspection regarding the July 10 asbestos release. Two are from AOC employees and one is from the Capitol Police union.
"We are still interviewing witnesses and collecting documents," Mulligan told CQ Roll Call in an email. "We will write a report and share it with the responsible employing office. If there are findings we will identify actions for the employing office to take to resolve the finding."
If the investigation finds that there has indeed been a violation of OSHA regulations, the OOC may take a series of steps to enforce correction of the violation. In 2006, the agency filed a complaint charging the AOC 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. The complaint led to a lawsuit, and that eventually resulted in a settlement agreement under which AOC promised to complete repairs to the tunnels.
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