Mountain Mail: Abuse Beneath the U.S. Capitol?

January 08, 2007

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By GAP President Louis Clark. This op-ed also appeared in the Topeka Capital Journal and Radio Left.

As we all know, our nation’s capital is blessed with magnificent structures. Many of these buildings are not only beautiful and historic; they also have come to represent the justice and democratic ideals that are practiced, sometimes, within their walls. The Capitol, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the congressional office buildings all reflect the noble principles upon which this nation was founded and later flourished.

But beneath this civilized veneer and symbolic celebration of fairness and democracy lies another reality. Miles of underground utility tunnels connect these and a few other federal buildings in a spidery web of pipes, spreading heat and cooled air, dispensing water, and removing sewage.

For the 10 maintenance workers who descend each workday into this labyrinth, life is hellish. They risk injury as chunks of concrete periodically cascade from crumbling ceilings. Temperatures are unbearable, frequently exceeding 150 degrees. Even worse, deadly asbestos permeates the atmosphere of the tunnels, along with poisonous levels of arsenic from welding fumes. The situation is so bad that the Capitol police refuse to patrol there – or even send dogs – despite the fact that the labyrinth is vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

For decades, the workers have complained to their boss, the Architect of the Capitol, about these hazardous conditions. The Architect is a presidential appointee, and answers for the maintenance, operation and preservation of the building, including the dilapidated underground tunneling system. The workers whom the Architect hires to ensure that those who visit and work on Capitol Hill have a comfortable environment have neither the right to safe working conditions nor the right to complain about them.

Unlike other federal government employees or most workers in the private sector, Congress has chosen to exclude its own employees from the reach of worker safety legislation.

They have not suffered in silence, though. For years, they have carefully stayed within the chain of command in raising their concerns.

Over six years ago, the Office of Compliance, which is supposed to oversee the Architect, issued toothless citations for failing “to take action to prevent tunnel workers from breathing airborne asbestos” in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards. Since then, conditions have steadily deteriorated.

Out of frustration and desperation, the workers finally gave up on official channels. They appealed directly to three U.S. Senators and appeared on major media outlets. Rather than address worker concerns, managers at the Office of the Architect took direct action to silence them.

They confronted the workers, demanding to know who had contacted members of Congress. They harassed employees who sought independent medical testing to determine the extent of their injuries from exposure to asbestos and arsenic. They threatened to fire workers, held up promotions, smeared employees to inquiring congressional staff members, denied hazard pay, threatened to remove a supportive supervisor, and excluded workers from meetings to address safety issues.

The intimidation united the workers, and members of Congress have awoken to the plight of those responsible for their physical comfort. Senator Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, who will soon chair the Senate committee that oversees the Architect, proclaimed, “We have a responsibility to these [tunnel] workers and a responsibility to this nation to set a good example when it comes to worker safety and sadly we have not been setting a good example.”

Most recently, in December, the 10 workers received the national Callaway Award in recognition of their courage and fortitude.

Unlike its newly energized employees, the Office of the Architect has strangely fallen into silence, refusing to respond to critics, media, members of Congress, or the workers’ lawyers.

Tragically, it might already be too late for some of the workers. During his acceptance speech at the Callaway Award presentation, one of the recipients described how several workers drove home in stunned silence after learning the results of their medical examinations. Some were told that despite not yet reaching middle age, they had the lungs of extremely old men.

For a Washingtonian crowd used to daily commutes to, from and by this nation’s living monuments, there was hushed silence and tears.