The saga of the Capitol “tunnel rats” is beginning to resemble the plight of mine workers in 19th century America or laborers in Siberia or the backwaters of the Third World — in short, a disgrace to modern America, especially Congress.
It’s a tale of sustained and willful neglect for the working conditions and health of the 10-member tunnel crew. And now, it appears, of retaliation against the workers for speaking out and trying to protect their own health.
At least eight years after the Architect of the Capitol was warned about asbestos contamination and other health dangers in the five-mile tunnel system under the Capitol complex and a year after Congress’ Attending Physician said the workers had suffered no lung damage, the Architect has pulled the crew out of the tunnels.
The move apparently followed pressure from Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who received medical records from the workers’ personal doctor indicating that several are suffering from asbestosis, a breathing disorder brought on by inhalation of asbestos.
Murray, chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions subcommittee on employment and workplace safety, commented that “the Architect’s decision to take action is a welcome one, but does little to excuse the many years of negligence that have cost these workers their health. For far too long these workers were exposed to deadly concentrations of asbestos while the Architect’s office turned its back on their complaints.”
Even now, the workers claim, their removal from the tunnels is designed as punishment and a silencing mechanism — not an effort to protect them. The tunnel crew’s supervisor, John Thayer, claimed the action was taken to break up the group and undermine its solidarity as it files formal complaints and a lawsuit against the Architect.
He said that last week AOC officials “pulled our tunnel access and the safety officer gave me a wag of his finger and said if we were caught down in the tunnels they would call the police on us. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.”
The workers’ attorney, David Marshall, added that “while we appreciate Sen. Murray’s concern … we are very concerned that the Architect will use this opportunity to further retaliate against them and put the workers in jobs [in the Capitol Power Plant] that are similarly unhealthy and unsafe.”
The AOC’s spokeswoman said the workers’ reassignment was based on “new medical information” — apparently, a Detroit doctor’s report, broadcast on NBC, that the exposed workers “have an increased risk of developing asbestos lung cancers, colon cancers and mesothelioma,” an aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Last July, Attending Physician John Eisold told a Senate committee that he personally had reviewed the workers’ medical files and found no evidence of asbestos-related disease. A second opinion was sought only after the workers continued to raise concerns in the media and a Senate panel pressed the Architect on the issue. The negligence, deception and, possibly, intimidation involved in this case is simply unconscionable. Congress needs to see that it’s made right.