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Cannon Asbestos Scare Raises Safety Questions

A portion of the Cannon basement is closed for construction. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

An asbestos scare in the Cannon House Office Building over the weekend has raised questions about workplace safety, as construction and renovation of the century-old structure continues.  

Cannon was closed after work on Oct. 30 and for most of Oct. 31 as engineers and industrial hygienists investigated a potential asbestos leak during the ongoing Cannon Renewal Project. Though preliminary air samples tested negative for the carcinogen, the Architect of the Capitol's website indicated late on Oct. 31 that "sample results were well below the regulatory limit for general space occupancy." In other words, some traces of the chemical were found in the air, which was tested by an "an independent, accredited lab" according to the AOC, but those levels were not considered harmful. A spokeswoman for the AOC did not return multiple requests for comment about whether any changes are being implemented following the asbestos scare.  

The AOC has also not provided information about if and how many workers were potentially exposed, but did note on its site, "There were no injuries associated with this event."  

According to the union representing the Capitol Police force, the police department emailed officers working in the area telling them the AOC found the asbestos levels were safe.  

"We are waiting to hear back from the officers to determine if the email specifically stated the found [Permissible Exposure Levels]," U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman Jim Konczos wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call Monday. "If not, the union will request on their behalf the actual findings for the [officers'] peace of mind."  

This would not be the first time a union stepped in to seek more information about potential asbestos exposure for Capitol employees.  

In July 2014, a spill that occurred during asbestos abatement closed the House side of the Capitol, delaying legislative business that morning. Two months later, the union representing AOC workers, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 626, claimed the AOC was not cooperating with requests for information about workers who were exposed to asbestos during the spill. The president of Local 626 did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the recent Cannon incident.  

Local 626 and the Capitol Police union filed three separate complaints relating to the July 2014 incident with Congress' Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace grievances at the Capitol. According to the office's Deputy Executive Director Paula Sumberg, all three cases are still open.

"In each of these cases, we have identified the steps that should be taken to minimize the chances that a similar incident will recur and we are working with the AOC to ensure that those steps are being taken," Sumberg wrote in an email to CQ Roll Call Monday.

Sumberg would not say what those steps entailed, citing a policy of not discussing details of pending cases. But she said the AOC is expected to close the cases "this fall." A spokeswoman for the AOC did not return multiple requests for comment about whether the lessons learned from the 2014 situation would be applied to the Cannon Renewal Project.

The $752.7 million project to revitalize the oldest congressional office building is expected to last 10 years, and is currently in "phase 0." This phase is focused on installing building systems in the basement. A portion of Cannon basement's West Corridor is closed until the end of November and the west side of the building's garage will be closed for the rest of the year.

Asbestos abatement remains an ongoing challenge for revitalizing the Capitol and the office buildings, which are decades, and, in the case of Cannon, more than a century old.

For example, in 2012, the Office of Compliance closed a 13-year case involving 10 workers who were exposed to asbestos while working in Capitol tunnels, and developed lifelong health problems.

Related: Cannon Reopens After Asbestos Scare

Cannon Evacuated for Potential Asbestos Leak

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