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Danger lurks below U.S. Capitol

Inside a maze of tunnels that snake its way for miles, huge slabs of concrete fall from ceilings and white powder coats some pipes and floors. But it’s not all dust. Federal investigators recently found that conditions in the tunnels pose an “imminent danger” to the workers. So who owns them? NBC's Lisa Myers investigates.

Inside tunnels that snake their way for miles, huge slabs of concrete fall from ceilings and white powder coats some pipes and floors. But it’s not all dust. Much of it is asbestos — harmful fibers that can scar lungs and, potentially, cause death. Ten men work down in these tunnels every day, where temperatures often exceed 150 degrees. They call themselves “the tunnel rats.”

Federal investigators recently found that conditions in the tunnels pose an “imminent danger” to the workers, and that the owner of the tunnels had “effectively ignored” safety warnings for six years. So who owns these tunnels? The United States Congress.

The labyrinth of six tunnels — some of them nearly 100 years old — provide steam and chilled water to Congress and other federal buildings, including the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. Four of the 10 tunnel workers — interviewed by NBC News — believe they have been exposed to asbestos and have worked under extremely dangerous conditions.

Documents obtained by NBC News show that since 2000, Congress — specifically the Architect of the Capitol, responsible for the maintenance of the tunnels — has been warned of asbestos and other “potentially life threatening safety and health violations” in the tunnels. Yet a recent inspection found little had been fixed.

“There had been some improvement in some areas, but basically it was worse than we found it before,” says Peter Eveleth, general counsel in the Office of Compliance, in charge of health and safety oversight of Congress.

The oversight office’s initial investigation was sparked by complaints from workers about the poor health and safety conditions in the tunnels.

“We interviewed most of the workers and what they have suggested to us has borne out substantially through our inspections,” says Eveleth. “We find them quite credible.”

In 2000, the Office of Compliance cited the Architect of the Capitol for serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. They found that concrete falling from the ceiling posed a serious risk of “death or serious physical harm” to the workers; the tunnels lacked an adequate communications system allowing workers to communicate with those above ground in case of an emergency; and there were not sufficient emergency exits permitting workers to escape in a crisis.

“It was determined that there were a number of locations where concrete was in danger of falling (incipient spalls) and injuring employees,” the citation said. “As of November 29, 2000, these areas has [sic] not been repaired, posing a danger to the personnel who work in the tunnels,” the report warned.

Separately — that same year — the oversight office also raised concerns about asbestos and extremely high temperatures in the tunnels. One June 2000 memo from the Office of Compliance noted that the Architect of the Capitol “needs to take action to prevent tunnel workers from breathing airborne asbestos.” Yet six years later, investigators say the conditions are even worse than they were back then. So last year, Eveleth’s office sent inspectors back into the tunnels to check on the status of the repairs his office demanded five years earlier.

“We found what was supposed to have been corrected was not corrected in many instances,” says Eveleth.

Some portions of the tunnels in danger of collapse were shored up and some asbestos was cleaned up. But in February, Eveleth’s office issued the first “complaint” the office has ever filed against the Architect of the Capitol because it had “effectively ignored” the office’s prior warnings about health and safety concerns in the tunnels.

“We were not satisfied that the architect was taking the measures that were necessary in order to address both short-term and long-term repairs,” says Eveleth. “I don’t know why they didn’t make this a priority,” he says.

In March, after the complaint was issued, the architect mandated that tunnel workers wear respirators and protective suits to shield against potential exposure to asbestos. But some of the workers have worked unprotected in these conditions for more than 20 years.

During an interview with NBC News, the Architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, said his office was “being overly conservative” in requiring workers to wear protective suits. But those assurances run counter to established federal regulations for dealing with exposed asbestos and the recommendations of safety and health experts. The tunnel workers also complain that they have repeatedly been given hollow assurances regarding their own health and safety or no information at all.

“We ask [questions] about our safety and they refuse to answer them,” says John Thayer, supervisor of the tunnel shop at the Capitol Power Plant who is in charge of the crew of tunnel workers.

The workers don’t just worry about their exposure to asbestos, either.

“My greatest fear is getting hit with a piece of concrete,” says Tommy Baker, who suffered a stroke in July. Others worry about the continuing lack of communications in the tunnels in the event of an accident.

“There's no emergency plan to get us out of there,” says Scotty Smith, another worker. “There's an emergency plan for every federal worker on the planet, except us.”

Thayer: “I do worry every day when I send these guys out on the job that somebody's gonna get either seriously hurt or killed.”

The architect says that the Public Health Service did a survey of asbestos in the tunnels in 2001.

"The results of that survey were good," Hantman says. "It was basically our job to maintain in place the asbestos over that period of time."

But a 2004 memo from the Capitol Police says: "Exposed asbestos has built up on all of the steam lines and floors of the tunnels."

In July, the Public Health Service completed an asbestos assessment of the tunnels soon after NBC's interview with the architect. The health agency found some areas of the pipes in the five tunnels they inspected contained asbestos in "good condition." But dozens of other areas in the tunnels were found to have exposed or damaged asbestos. The sixth tunnel was not inspected because it was in the process of being abated. The public health agency's report recommended that all asbestos-containing materials in the tunnels be removed or properly encapsulated.

The Capitol's utility tunnel system contains hundreds of tons of asbestos, according to the Office of Compliance. This is not a problem as long as the asbestos is "encapsulated" and properly maintained, according to health and safety experts. Many old buildings contain asbestos. But potential health problems occur when this material gets airborne.

"There certainly shouldn't be ambient asbestos floating around in the tunnels," Hantman says.

But falling concrete often damages the asbestos-containing insulation covering tunnel pipes — exposing asbestos. Government health experts — who have inspected the tunnels — warn that even relatively small amounts of loose asbestos in the tunnels "could be enough to contaminate the whole area."

According to the Office of Compliance, they have discovered asbestos in portions of the tunnels where there is no asbestos-containing material insulating the pipes. This suggests that asbestos in the tunnels is or has been airborne. In fact, the oversight office recently conducted its own asbestos tests in the tunnels and discovered large amounts of asbestos in dust that had accumulated on the top of pipes in the tunnels.

To see just how bad the asbestos was, NBC News obtained a sample from inside the tunnels and had it tested at a nationally renowned lab. NBC was not present when the sample was collected. The lab hired by NBC found 30 percent to 40 percent concentrations of asbestos — considered extremely dangerous.

“This is not something that you are going to want to have loose and laying about,” says Joe Centifonti from the EMSL Analytical laboratory in Maryland, where NBC News had the material tested. “This is something that should be sealed and locked down. I personally wouldn't want to be working around anything that's damaged like that, day in and day out."

The results didn’t surprise the workers.

Thayer has worked in the tunnels for 22 years. In 1998, at the age of 33, his lung age was equivalent to that of a 118-year-old, according to his medical records. He was diagnosed with scarring of the lungs, an indication of exposure to asbestos.

“I have lesions on my lungs — scarring on my lungs,” says Thayer.

Other workers believe they have suffered from exposure as well. “I have breathing problems,” says Scotty Smith.

“I have a pulmonary, respiratory abnormality,” adds Christian Raley.

Workers complain that the Architect of the Capitol has consistently dismissed many of their health problems. Asked about the health conditions of the workers, Hantman told NBC News, for instance, that none of them had any “indication of asbestosis.”

Yet three of the workers NBC News interviewed recently visited a renowned asbestos expert in Michigan, Dr. Michael Harbut of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. According to the workers, their initial medical tests indicated that all three had indications of “asbestosis.” Harbut would not discuss the tunnel workers’ cases due to privacy concerns, but did review the test results of the material NBC News had tested from the tunnel. The amount of asbestos in those materials is potentially “extremely dangerous,” he said. “This is crazy to have this kind of thing going on right under the nose of the seat of government."

Hantman recently admitted to Congress having failed the workers. Responding to questions from Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., during a hearing last March, Hantman said: “We had ongoing inspections going, but clearly they were not adequate."

“Well, that's cold comfort,” responded Sen. Durbin. “I appreciate your admission, but I think it tells us that we have done a great disservice to these workers and their families.”

Hantman acknowledges problems, but says improvements are being made.

“We’re trying to solve problems and make sure that everybody who goes down, down into those tunnels, will be safe,” said Hantman.

Earlier this month, Hantman told Congress that his office completed "shoring" up, or repairing, the roof in one of the tunnels, completed a "statement of work" for contracting "tunnel dust clean-up and pipe covering repair" in another and awarded a contract to begin asbestos clean-up in the tunnels.

But the Tunnel Rats say it's too little, too late. “I can no longer turn to these employees and say, “You're gonna be safe,” says Thayer.

“We asked for help,” adds Raley, “and we’re not getting any. Simple as that.”

A report in March on the Red Tunnel for the Office of the Architect — obtained by NBC News — warns, “eventually the tunnel will cave in, severing the steam and chilled water lines to significant portions of the Capitol Complex.”

The Capitol Complex is composed of 13 government buildings, including the Capitol Police headquarters and the Supreme Court.

“It’s time for somebody to be held accountable,” says tunnel worker Tommy Baker.

Making these tunnels safe may cost as much as $500 million. So far, Congress has appropriated only a fraction of that — $27.6 million — for repairs.

“If this was all above ground,” says Scotty Smith, “they’d be doing something about it.”