Video: Asbestos hidden from D.C. tunnel workers

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updated 5/9/2007 3:07:55 PM ET 2007-05-09T19:07:55

Three of the 10 men who work in the utility tunnels underneath the U.S. Capitol have asbestos-related lung disease, and another four “most likely” are developing asbestos-related lung disease as well, according to an independent asbestos specialist who recently examined them. The three received a diagnosis of definite asbestosis — the scarring of the lungs caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. The other four received a diagnosis of probable asbestosis.

The NBC News Investigative Unit first reported on the workers’ concerns about dangerous conditions in the tunnels last summer . The workers had complained that their employer, the Architect of the Capitol, had done little to address their complaints or protect them from the conditions, which included the presence of dangerous levels of airborne asbestos.

The new development came as the tunnel workers continue to ask Congress to act to address all the hazards in the Capitol’s tunnel system.

Last year, the workers blew the whistle about serious dangers in their workplace. The tunnels beneath the Capitol carry steam and chilled water throughout the Capitol complex. The workers, known as “the Tunnel Rats,” have worked in these tunnels for years, some for decades.

They claimed they had warned their managers repeatedly that conditions in the tunnels were deteriorating. Parts of tunnel ceilings were falling, the tunnels were full of thick dust, and temperatures were often above 130 degrees. They say they told the managers that conditions were becoming increasingly dangerous, that the Architect of the Capitol’s own studies showed that, and that they feared for their health and their lives. They claim their managers did not act on the workers’ warnings or on the conclusions of the studies, and that conditions worsened instead of improved.

"We ask questions about our safety," John Thayer, the tunnel workers' supervisor, told us during an interview last summer. "And they refuse to answer them."

The tunnel workers knew that some of the pipes were coated with the insulation material asbestos.

They say they kept asking their managers if they were monitoring and testing to make sure loose asbestos was not getting into the air.

They say they kept hearing their managers say: Don't worry, the asbestos was in good condition, they were not required to wear respiratory protection, they were safe.

Last year — they say they learned they weren’t safe.

A complaint filed in February 2006 by the Congressional Office of Compliance [.PDF link] against the tunnel workers' employer, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, focused on much of what they had warned about. The complaint charged that the AOC had "effectively ignored... many potentially life-threatening safety and health violations" and failed to fix hazards previously reported as violations of federal law. That accusation, from a Congressional office, prompted the workers to take their own concerns public.

The next month, they wrote a letter to several Members of Congress asking for help. They also began researching records — any and all tunnel asbestos records, and their own medical records.

The workers claim that taking their complaints public prompted retaliation by the Architect of the Capitol. So last summer they sought legal representation, and last October filed their own complaint with the Office of Compliance, accusing the Architect of the Capitol of subjecting them to "increasingly hostile treatment, false accusations, and threats of dismissal."

Video: Tunnel workers in their own words Last summer, the NBC News Investigative Unit obtained video showing dangerous conditions inside the utility tunnels that run beneath the U.S. Capitol. The video showed slabs of concrete falling from sagging ceilings, and lots of white dust coating some pipes and floors.

We tested one dust sample removed from the tunnels last summer. NBC News was not present when the sample was collected. A nationally renowned lab found a 30-40 percent concentration of asbestos — considered extremely dangerous.

The workers say that test result was another piece of evidence of what they had come to believe: their work in the tunnels was exposing them to loose asbestos.

They also had found documents showing that the government's own tests had found some of the dust contained loose asbestos.

"We were pipe fitting and breathing all this asbestos with no warning, you know?" said Frank Binns, an insulator and pipefitter for 12 years. "And they — they didn't take care of it. "

Through their research, they had learned that if inhaled, asbestos fibers can scar lungs, and potentially cause death.

"We've been in danger," said Edward Hill, a pipefitter in the tunnel shop for 27 years, "the whole time we've been down there."

"The idea that they've been exposed to life-threatening levels of asbestos just below the halls of Congress," said David J. Marshall, the workers' attorney, "is something that is absolutely shocking."

The workers say they had to fight for other answers. Some had to fight to see their medical records. Some learned they already had signs of lung damage.

"Through the years," said Thayer, who has been a tunnel worker for 22 years, "We actually knew, inside our bodies, that there was things happening to us. We just didn't think it was — we thought it was old age — or just out of shape."

It turns out that Congress’ Office of the Attending Physician, which collects and keeps medical records for Capitol employees, had medical records showing at least one of the workers had lung problems. One worker's medical tests showed "scarring" on his lungs — "the lungs of a 118-year-old." Although these test results were from 1998, the worker was unaware of them until last year.

The workers claim that after they complained publicly the Architect of the Capitol refused to pay for them to see lung specialists, and told them it wanted government doctors to examine them instead. The workers chose to see an independent asbestos specialist.

By January 2007, all 10 of them had traveled to see an occupational asbestos expert — some using their own money — to undergo lung tests and highly sophisticated CAT scans to determine whether they had been harmed by exposure to asbestos and other toxins. The asbestos expert was Dr. Michael Harbut, co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers in Detroit.

The workers allowed the NBC News Investigative Unit to report the results of their medical tests for the first time. 

Dr. Harbut told three of the workers they definitely have asbestosis: scarring of the lungs that impairs breathing and potentially can cause death. He told another four workers their tests show they probably have asbestosis, too.

"They have an increased risk," Dr. Harbut said, "of developing asbestos lung cancers, colon cancers and mesothelioma."

Mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

(Note: Two of the three workers diagnosed with asbestosis had reported asbestos exposures during prior employments, and one of these two had a previous minor asbestos-related medical finding. The worker whose health records indicated “lungs of a 118-year-old” had not had a previously reported asbestos exposure.)

Video: 'Tunnel Rats' speak out Last month, we interviewed 8 of the 10 tunnel workers at an NBC News studio in Washington, D.C. NBC News Senior Investigative Correspondent Lisa Myers asked the workers how they felt when Dr. Harbut delivered the news.

"We were almost in shock," Thayer, the supervisor, said. "Everything that I had planned for the next 15 years has to be put on hold."

"I'm furious," said Tommy Baker, a tunnel pipefitter for 28 years. "What I thought was a good job and provided good living has been slowly killing me, or possibly killing me."

The workers' concerns about asbestos had received an airing in several hearings last year before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. In its testimony, the Architect of the Capitol repeatedly claimed that asbestos-related issues were not identified as a major concern before 2005, when the Office of Compliance issued a citation to the Architect of the Capitol about them. It also claimed it didn't know whether the workers had been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos.

Video: Former Capitol architect on tunnel conditions In an NBC News interview last year, then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman noted that Congress' Office of the Attending Physician had examined the workers and found no indication of asbestosis.

Hantman, the Architect from 1997 to 2007, told both NBC News and the subcommittee that he and his managers had relied on a 2001 Public Health Service survey of asbestos in the utility tunnels. He said that survey "found the existing asbestos to be in good condition" as of that year.

Several federal officials very familiar with the asbestos issues in the utility tunnels disputed Hantman's characterization of the survey. One source recalled the 2001 report the AoC cited but claims it did not say that all the asbestos was in good condition. This same source says that if the survey report had made such a claim, it would have been "completely untrue" given other evidence of asbestos problems.

On April 10, a day after this report first aired, The Architect of the Capitol sent an e-mail to NBC, saying that the tunnel workers had received medical clearance to work in the tunnels through participation in an OSHA-mandated medical surveillance program.

"Upon receiving new medical information on the workers Monday evening, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol restricted the workers'access to the tunnels beginning today.

"We will re-evaluate each employee's medical qualifications and/or work restrictions. The AOC remains fully committed to ensuring employee safety, to solving the utility tunnel issues expeditiously, and to keeping Congress informed of our progress," the e-mail said.

Previously, The Architect of the Capitol refused to provide the NBC News Investigative Unit a copy of the 2001 asbestos survey report. We obtained a copy from another source. The report's executive summary does not support Hantman's claim, and an appendix containing relevant field data — “pertinent information” about whether asbestos was airborne or damaged — was missing from the copy. We asked the Architect of the Capitol to provide the missing data. It refused.

A second source told NBC News that Hantman’s testimony failed to mention that the 2001 survey indicated a “significant potential for future damage.”

A third source noted that the Architect of the Capitol's own inspections found airborne asbestos in the tunnels prior to and after the 2001 survey. A fourth source told us the Architect of the Capitol had conducted repairs on damaged asbestos after detecting it in the late 1990s. But this source also says the repair work suddenly stopped, money for more work was diverted elsewhere, and contractors entering the tunnels to do work frequently damaged and re-damaged the asbestos covering the pipes in the tunnels.

The NBC News Investigative Unit obtained one 1998 memo which shows that the Architect of the Capitol's own asbestos inspections found airborne asbestos back then. That memo, authored by a safety and asbestos specialist, included the specific recommendation that "employees working in the steam tunnels should be wearing respiratory protection and protective clothing." The tunnel workers claim they were never shown that memo or given that instruction. The Architect of the Capitol has admitted it did not require the tunnel workers to wear respirator masks in the tunnels until last year — eight years later.

A fifth source, very familiar with the Architect of the Capitol’s own asbestos inspections, told the NBC News Investigative Unit that the bottom line was that the managers knew that the workers were being exposed to dangerous airborne asbestos — for years — and did not take action to protect them. Several of the other sources with direct knowledge agreed. (Note: All the sources noted above spoke to NBC News about these issues on the condition of anonymity.)

"That's what, I guess, bugs me more than anything," said Martin Blanchet, a tunnel electrician and Iraq war veteran. "They can all say, ‘Well, we didn't know, we didn't know.’ They DO know. They know, but they seem not to want to do anything."

Why didn’t the tunnel workers do more to protect themselves, such as insist on wearing respirator masks? Tunnel workers supervisor John Thayer claims the Architect of the Capitol’s managers told them repeatedly that they didn’t need such protection. He also claims the workers didn’t realize until recently that airborne asbestos fibers in the tunnels were a potential danger for them. He says that in hindsight they should have insisted on wearing respirator masks.

Contacted last week, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol refused to provide any officials for on-camera or telephone interviews. It also refused to answer several direct and relevant questions about documents and facts at issue. It provided only this statement:

“The Architect of the Capitol remains fully committed to ensuring employee safety, to solving the utility tunnel issues, and to keeping Congress informed of our progress.

The AOC is working with the Office of Compliance to address on a comprehensive basis all safety issues in the tunnels. We will continually strive to ensure that any work performed is compliant with applicable health and safety regulations so that no one is exposed to undue health or safety risks.”

After then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman's testimony last year, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., had this blunt exhange with him:

Durbin: We knew that there was asbestos, we knew that it was a hazard to workers, and literally waited years before we provided safety devices for these workers to protect them. How could we possibly explain that to the workers or their families?

Hantman: We had ongoing inspections going. But clearly they were not adequate.

Durbin: Well, that's cold comfort. I appreciate your admission, but I think it tells us that we have done a great disservice to these workers and their families. ...to think that it is occurring right here on Capitol Hill is a tremendous source of shame… We have a responsibility to these workers and their families, and a responsibility to this nation, to set an example, a good example when it comes to worker safety. Sadly, we have not set a good example to this point… Knowing this, for five or six years, and not responding to it, and exposing workers to these potential life-threatening situations, that's entirely unacceptable. And to think that it would happen on Capitol Hill, the seat of our government, the symbol of who we are as a people, makes it even worse.

Some of the tunnel workers attended that hearing, and others in 2006. They say they often left disappointed: all talk, no action and no opportunity for the workers to present their side of the story.

"Somebody has to step up to the plate," said Blanchet.

"We hoped they were going to step up to the plate," said Thayer. "It is time Congress stepped up."

"I'd like to take the Members [of Congress] for a tour in the tunnels," said Scott Smith, a tunnel pipefitter/welder for seven years. "And see what they got to say after that."

It wasn't until last month that Congress invited any of the workers to testify. On March 1, Thayer appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety's hearing on banning asbestos in the workplace.

"We have worked in and breathed asbestos for decades, and are now beginning to suffer the health consequences," Thayer told that subcommittee. "We are essentially ticking time bombs." Thayer asked Congress to help them get compensation for "the irreparable harm we have suffered," and asked them 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."

“This is Capitol Hill,” said Tommy Baker, the pipefitter, near the end of our interview. “You would think that this is the one place in the world that we wouldn't have this issue, but we do.”

The workers fear that their blowing the whistle about all the tunnel conditions, and the ensuing controversy, could cause them to lose their jobs. Some of those diagnosed with asbestosis worry they could lose their health insurance.

Since they are not legally able as federal employees to sue the government for personal injury, the workers have pursued the only avenue available for possible compensation — the retaliation complaint they filed with the Office of Compliance. That complaint is now in confidential mediation/settlement talks. Their attorneys say that if the Architect of the Capitol forces them to file a lawsuit, the workers will ask the court to compensate them for asbestos-related injuries they claim were caused by their employers “deliberate indifference to their health and safety.”

Meanwhile, the Architect of the Capitol and the Office of Compliance currently are negotiating terms of another settlement — this one a settlement with the Office of Compliance on its complaint about the tunnel conditions. [.PDF link] Sources say these discussions are in the final stages, and a settlement announcement is possible within the next month. Update: On May 9, the Office of Compliance announced a settlement of this complaint. The agreement requires the Architect of the Capitol to "permanently abate" safety and health hazards within five years, and "immediately implement any reasonably necessary interim measures to protect employees." It also establishes a timeline with milestones for completing the work, with monthly follow-up meetings. Marshall, the workers' attorney, said this settlement would have "no effect" on the workers' complaint.

The workers have continued to sound alarms that dangerous levels of asbestos are still being detected in the tunnels, and that asbestos fibers might be floating up from the tunnels to sidewalks and even into some Congressional office buildings. Those alarms have begun to attract attention on Capitol Hill, and prompted letters demanding answers to the Architect of the Capitol from at least two concerned senators.

“Maybe when a Member [of Congress] is affected, or their spouse is affected, or their child is affected,” said Baker, “maybe they'll do something. If it's not you, it's easy not to worry about certain things.”

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