NBC News Investigative Unit
updated 10/18/2006 3:04:41 PM ET 2006-10-18T19:04:41

Ten U.S. Capitol tunnel workers filed a whistleblower complaint Wednesday against their employer, the Architect of the Capitol.

The workers service utility tunnels beneath the U.S. Capitol complex, maintaining the plumbing systems that provide steam and chilled water to Congress, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and other federal buildings. The workers, who are officially known as Tunnel Shop employees, call themselves "the Tunnel Rats."

According to their attorneys, the workers allege that they were retaliated against after they informed members of Congress and the media about falling concrete, high temperatures, unsafe levels of asbestos and other toxins, and other dangerous working conditions in the five miles of utility tunnels.

In an Aug. 21 report on “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams ,” Lisa Myers and the NBC News Investigative Unit reported on the workers' claims. Documents obtained by the Investigative Unit showed that Congress has been warned of asbestos and other "potentially life threatening safety and health violations" in the tunnels since 2000. Federal investigators recently found that overall conditions in the tunnels pose an "imminent danger" to the workers, and that the Architect of the Capitol "effectively ignored" safety warnings for six years.

Video: Tunnel workers in their own words The NBC News Investigative Unit also obtained a sample of dust from inside the tunnels, and had the sample tested at a nationally renowned lab. The test indicated 30-40 percent concentrations of asbestos, considered extremely dangerous. Federal investigators also found comparably dangerous levels of asbestos.

In a press release Wednesday, the lawyers charged that the Architect of the Capitol "knowingly exposed [the tunnel workers] to these hazards ... [and] forced them to work for decades with little or no protective gear ... resulting in progressive and life-threatening asbestos disease."

Some members of the tunnel crew have worked unprotected in these conditions for 20 years. In 2000, the Office of Compliance sent a memo to the Architect of the Capitol stating: "[the Architect of the Capitol] needs to take action to prevent tunnel workers from breathing airborne asbestos." Despite that warning and others, it wasn't until March that tunnel workers were told to wear protective masks.

Some workers already have documented health problems they believe were caused by asbestos exposure. One test indicated that one of the tunnel workers had the "lungs of a 118-year-old."

According to a statement by the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based whistleblower protection organization also representing the tunnel workers, the workers "were subjected to repeated retaliation and a hostile work environment" for exposing the unsafe working conditions and environmental hazards earlier this year.

The complaint, filed Oct. 18, accuses the Architect of the Capitol of "deliberate indifference" in exposing the tunnel workers to unsafe hazards. It makes specific charges about retaliation, alleging that Architect of the Capitol management:

Accompanied by their attorneys, the workers hand-delivered the complaint to the Office of Compliance, located at a Library of Congress building in downtown Washington. The Office of Compliance is an independent non-partisan agency established to administer and enforce the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA). The tunnels and the tunnel workers are the responsibility of the U.S. Congress. 

In a press conference with the workers and their attorneys after the filing of the complaint, attorney Joanne Royce said: "At least since 1999, members of this tunnel crew have raised the issue of the dangerous and horrifying conditions under which they work up their chain of command to no avail. The Architect of the Capitol has largely ignored their concerns."

Royce is general counsel for the Government Accountability Project.

After the press conference, the workers delivered a letter to Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., asking Congress to direct the government to pay for diagnostic medical tests for all the workers. Durbin held hearings earlier this year before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee which addressed the workers' allegations. But, according to the workers and their attorneys, the hearings led to increased retaliation and harassment for the workers. 

In a statement Wednesday, the Architect of the Capitol's communications office would not comment on the tunnel workers complaint, citing a policy not to comment on matters before the Office of Compliance because of confidentiality requirements. The Architect of the Capitol's statement said that "safety remains as always a top priority for the Architect of the Capitol." It also said that the Architect of the Capitol "continues to implement measures that address structural, communication, asbestos, heat stress, and egress issues" cited in a previous Office of Compliance complaint and citations earlier this year. It referred to "action plans" discussed during the congressional hearings.

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