Editorial: Tunnel Justice

Posted March 3, 2009 at 1:39pm

Three years ago, 10 men whose responsibility it was to maintain the tunnels beneath the Capitol complex raised concerns about falling concrete and asbestos exposure in their workplace. Predictably, and appropriately, Members of Congress were outraged at the conditions in the two-plus miles of tunnels.

Hearings were held and lawmakers cast blame on officials for the problems. “Unconscionable,— Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said. “Inhumane,— then-Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) blamed then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman for allowing the tunnels to deteriorate to such a state.

Eventually the “tunnel rats— were examined by doctors, and nine were found to have scarring in their lungs. And as Roll Call’s Emily Yehle reported last week, some have gotten much worse while other members of their families have become seriously sick as well. Among the workers’ wives, two have scarring of the lungs, two have cancer and one has a blood disease, according to John Thayer, the former supervisor of the Tunnel Shop, whose wife is among the ill. And his two children suffered from asthma when younger and one still gets hit with serious attacks. While none of their health problems has been connected to asbestos exposure, it’s hard to believe everything is unrelated.

To Congress’ credit, much has been done in response. An abatement plan has been instituted to clean out the tunnels, and the tunnel crew received some compensation through a June 2007 settlement, although the money was payment for harassment by AOC officials after the crew came forward with their complaints. (The amount paid has never been made public.)

But since then, Congress seems to have forgotten about the tunnel workers. The last hearing was held 18 months ago, and many of the men are struggling to find or master new professions. They have received no assistance with their medical care, to say nothing of their family members’ health concerns.

As federal employees, they are prohibited from suing their employer for negligence under the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act. And while they can try to claim workers’ compensation, which might cover some of the medical bills, the process is unbearably long and so far has provided no relief.

Congress needs to act. These 10 men maintained the tunnels that provide heat and cooling to the Capitol complex, spending years of their lives ensuring Members of Congress and their staffers could work comfortably. The least lawmakers can do is take care of those who have served them diligently and at severe risk to their health.