By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 18, 2007
J ohn Thayer has spent 22 years of his life poking his way through the five miles of scorching, wet, dark tunnels that snake their way under the Capitol, Union Station, the Supreme Court and more than 20 congressional buildings.
He figured he was working down in the filth and the steam to take care of his family in St. Mary's County, provide cooling and heating for the nation's leaders and save taxpayers' dollars by patching a century-old system of pipes and steam lines.
But Thayer and the nine other "tunnel rats" he supervises in 160-degree conditions below the city's streets learned in 1998 that the truth may be harrowingly different: The federal government's own investigators concluded that the tunnels the men work in each day are lined with exposed asbestos and littered with fallen asbestos debris. Safety specialists said the tunnels should be cleaned out and workers should be equipped with respirators and protective clothing.
Thayer and his staff didn't get respirators until last year, and even now they are being exposed to airborne asbestos at more than 30 times the legal limit, according to readings on government monitoring devices. Nine of the 10 workers say lung doctors have told them they exhibit symptoms of asbestos exposure.
A government doctor who examined Thayer when he was 33 estimated his lungs to be in the condition that might be expected of a 118-year-old. Today, Thayer is 42 and still descending daily into the tunnels, where it's so hot that the light bulbs the men install one day are often busted open by the time they return the next day.
Half of the tunnel rats served in the military -- two did tours in Iraq. Now they squeeze themselves through the tunnels knowing that their lungs are scarred, wondering constantly about the asbestos fibers they carried home to their wives and children.
"We thought the government was taking care of it," Thayer told me. "We gave them seven years, and they didn't fix it. We continued to work and we never complained, even after people began to feel sick. I finally had to say something."
Thayer spoke out at a Senate hearing this month, and although some senators promise action, the response Thayer has seen so far is retaliation and harassment from superiors who he says "badger us and try to discredit us and say we're lying about the conditions."
The Architect of the Capitol, the office that controls the Capitol Power Plant on E Street NW and the tunnels emanating from it, responded to my requests for comment with a four-sentence e-mail announcing its commitment to worker safety and "to solving the utility tunnel issues." Asbestos was not mentioned. When I sought answers to specific questions, I got no reply.
The Architect's answers to Congress were not much better. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has demanded a detailed accounting of $27.6 million in emergency funding that Congress provided last year for tunnel repairs and a plan for getting rid of the asbestos below ground. An attorney for the tunnel rats is preparing a suit against the government.
These are not men who flinch from hard work. The Capitol Police don't go into the tunnels -- too dangerous for workers or dogs. Some outside contractors who are asked to fix problems in the tunnels decline the jobs; there's easier work outside. But the tunnel rats have been on the job for anywhere from five to 30 years, and they're not quitting, even now.
"Where could I go? I'm damaged goods," says Thayer, who started out as a welder but, like all the workers, has learned the other trades needed down below: pipe fitter, insulator, electrician. "I can't even go back to the steamfitters union because I can't do that work anymore; my health won't let me."
Thayer has concluded that the only safe solution would be to abandon the tunnels and build a new system. "People are sick because they let the conditions deteriorate far beyond repair," he says, "and they were too embarrassed to ask for the money back when it was repairable."
Even now, as he inspects the tunnels each morning, Thayer and the others rub up against pipes and walls, loosing more asbestos fibers into the air.
Thayer believes the danger is not confined to the netherworld: "You guys aboveground don't know it, but I can be right under the grates at the corner where the Republican National Committee headquarters is" -- First and C streets SE -- "and the asbestos fibers are flying right up through the grate." Last week, the government-supplied monitors the workers carry showed asbestos levels 11 times the legal limit.
Thayer and the other workers worry that, through the years before they wore protective clothing, they were contaminating their families. Thayer's 16-year-old son points out changes in his father's behavior, and Thayer knows the boy is right: "I'm tired now, can't do the things I used to do. It's not what I wished for my career."
Thayer often frets that he should have done more for his men earlier, but he was trying to do right by everyone, including his bosses. He's not holding back anymore. "I've lived my life as a good human being, and this is how we're treated. Well, we're not going to be pushed around anymore."