There’s Light at the End of the Tunnel

Posted October 10, 2007 at 6:35pm

Capitol Hill utility tunnels are on their way to being free of long-standing health and safety problems, five months after the Office of Compliance and the Architect of the Capitol agreed to a five-year abatement process.

Work on the asbestos-tainted tunnels is under way and on schedule, OOC General Counsel Pete Eveleth said Wednesday.

“The process is working as was anticipated and the relationship is working as it was intended,” he said. “It seems to be going well, and we’ve had no difficulties seeing that it was properly implemented.”

Eveleth first filed a complaint against the AOC more than 18 months ago, charging the office with neglecting to address safety concerns in the tunnel, such as falling concrete and asbestos exposure. Months of negotiations and Congressional hearings followed, with 10 tunnel workers coming forward to talk about their health troubles and the tunnels’ unsafe environment.

The AOC and OOC settled their dispute in May, signing on to an agreement that required the health and safety problems to be fixed in five years. Inspectors recently completed a quarterly report on the process — a requirement of the settlement agreement between the AOC and OOC. The AOC deemed that report security sensitive, meaning the details of the office’s progress are confidential.

However, AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said progress is being made. The AOC Tunnel Improvement Project Team has completely eradicated asbestos from one tunnel and from high-priority areas in others. The communication system, which once had “dead spots,” is fully working now. And workers are constructing openings in the tunnels to improve ventilation and provide evacuation routes.

The AOC team also is meeting deadlines and cooperating with the OOC, which is tasked with overseeing the process, Eveleth said. Workers are removing asbestos and cleaning out the tunnels — all while wearing protective gear, he said. Every person who enters certain tunnels also must go through a physical exam.

But for the 10 employees who worked in the tunnels without that gear, illness already has struck again. Doctors found scarring on the lungs of one of the workers’ wives, marking the first indication that the workers’ exposure to asbestos affected their families. And so far, the workers haven’t received any reparation for their medical problems.

Only two of the 10 still work at the AOC. Many left their jobs after a settlement with the AOC in June, which covered workers’ contentions that the office harassed them after they made appeals to Congress. Whether the workers left because of the settlement is unclear, since it was confidential.

However, the settlement didn’t cover the harm done to workers exposed to the health and safety problems in the tunnels. Several workers are working with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization to address that issue. The nonprofit organization, made up of volunteers, has organized meetings with Members to push for a Congressional act that would provide benefits to the affected workers. Linda Reinstein, executive director and co-founder of the group, said she met with several Members last week — though she declined to give names. Many, she said, were sympathetic.

“These hard-working employees deserve benefits to protect them and their families during the future,” she said. “Not only are the workers impacted from excessive asbestos exposure, now it’s medically documented that family members are suffering.”

Congress has begun to work in other ways. The Ban Asbestos in America Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), passed the Senate last week. The bill would ban asbestos from products, as well as set up research and treatment centers.

Although excited by the Murray bill, Reinstein remains skeptical about the five-year plan to clean up the Capitol’s own asbestos problem.

“I support it, but it needs to be done correctly,” she said, adding that the AOC needs to make up for past negligence. “I need to have my faith restored.”