Tunnel Supervisor Tells Senate Panel Asbestos Levels Are Still Too High

Posted March 1, 2007 at 12:06pm

Workers will soon file a federal lawsuit against the Architect of the Capitol’s office because of high asbestos levels that continue to plague tunnels running beneath the Capitol complex, the supervisor of the 10-member Capitol Power Plant Tunnel Crew testified today.

Speaking at a Senate subcommittee hearing on asbestos, Supervisor John Thayer outlined how workers first discovered the asbestos, their quest to find out the exact level they had been exposed to and their efforts to fix the situation.

“In fact, just days ago, personal exposure monitors for two of my men showed six times the allowable asbestos exposure,” Thayer testified. “We have also been retaliated against for blowing the whistle on our unsafe working conditions, and have filed a complaint against the AOC with the Office of Compliance.”

In a statement, the AOC said they are working with the Office of Compliance to address safety issues in the tunnels.

“We will continually strive to ensure that any work performed by the contractors is compliant with applicable health and safety regulations so that no one is exposed to undue health or safety risks,” the statement reads.

Meanwhile, at the House Appropriations subcommittee on the Legislative branch fiscal 2008 budget hearing this morning, House Appropriators slammed acting Architect Steven Ayers, with Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) demanding to know how the asbestos problems were allowed to develop, noting that across America “asbestos abatement has been a high priority for many years. … How could this have occurred at the United States Capitol?”

LaHood demanded former Architect Alan Hantman, who ran the agency from 1997 to 2007, appear before the subcommittee to explain how conditions could have gotten so bad during his term.

Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said Hantman would appear before the committee, even if she had to supoena him to do so.

Calling the AOC’s actions that led to asbestos problems in the tunnels “inhumane,” “ridiculous” and “unprofessional,” LaHood said the tunnel workers “are probably going to end up dying” as a result of their exposure, and “somebody has to be held accountable.”

At the Senate hearing, Thayer asked Congress to compensate workers for “the irreparable harm we have suffered.”

His testimony marked the first time any of the tunnel workers have been invited to speak before Congress. When Hantman testified at a hearing on the matter last year, the workers were not invited to speak.

Accompanying Thayer to today’s hearing were many of his crew, who said afterward that not much has been done to alleviate the problems.

“The AOC continues to misrepresent working conditions in the tunnels,” Thayer said. “It’s tried to sweep the problem under the rug.”

Contractors have been called in by the AOC to fix the problem, Thayer said. But those contractors regularly violate safety procedures, even allowing asbestos to blow through the grates in sidewalks on Capitol Hill.

“This is nothing new, asbestos has been blowing through those grates for years,” Thayer said. “But it’s gotten worse.”

Thayer appeared as part of a five-person panel before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on employment and workplace safety to urge Congress to pass a bill banning asbestos.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) recently reintroduced a measure that would ban asbestos and provide significant funding for asbestos-related disease research and treatment.

“Asbestos is deadly,” Murray said. “It’s so deadly that there is no known safe level of exposure. It only takes a tiny bit of fiber to cause disease.”

Thayer testified that soon after the workers found out they had been exposed to asbestos, they traveled to Detroit to visit Dr. Michael Harbut, an expert on asbestos-related diseases.

“We learned that we all had signs of asbestos exposure,” he said. “Let me tell you, that was a very long, quiet drive home — three relatively young, otherwise healthy guys, who don’t smoke, live pretty simple lives, learning that we caught something at work that could kill us.”

Also testifying at the hearing were Barry Castleman, an environmental consultant who has studied the use of asbestos worldwide; Harvey Pass, a professor of cardiothoracic surgery at New York University School of Medicine who since 1988 has studied pleural mesothelioma, which is caused by asbestos exposure; Richard Wilson, a Harvard University professor who has studied occupational and environmental risks; and Sue Vento, the widow of late Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), who died from mesothelioma in 2000.

“We call on you to ban asbestos from all workplaces so that no one has to risk their own welfare and that of their families just to earn a living,” Thayer said.

Murray said the banning of asbestos will be one of her priorities for this Congress, and told Thayer that fixing the problems in the tunnels is “an issue that all of us need to focus our attention on.”

John McArdle contributed to this report.