Workers Transferred From Hill Tunnels

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ten workers who spent years, even decades, working in asbestos-laden utility tunnels under the Capitol complex were reassigned yesterday because of concerns for their health.

The workers, known as "tunnel rats," were transferred after Michael Harbut, an occupational and environmental health doctor from Michigan, provided their employer -- the Architect of the Capitol -- with information about the hazards of long-term access to deadly levels of asbestos. Nine of the 10 say doctors have told them that their lungs show evidence of exposure to asbestos.

The workers had complained about conditions for years, citing reports by government investigators that their workplace -- below city streets, often in temperatures up to 160 degrees -- had exposed asbestos and was strewn with fallen asbestos debris. But workers are not entirely happy about their reassignment.

Most have heard that they are being transferred to the power plant, which is in the midst of a seven-month asbestos removal. Some workers fear they will be assigned the lowliest work as punishment for speaking out.

"I'm going from one contaminated spot to another," said John Thayer, who told a Senate committee last month that he and the nine tunnel rats he supervises have experienced harassment and retaliation from supervisors who "badger us and try to discredit us and say we're lying about the conditions."

Officials in the architect's office said the men had been cleared by doctors for years to work in the tunnels. But yesterday the office changed its position.

"Upon receiving medical information on the workers Monday evening, the Office of the Architect of the Capitol restricted the workers' access to the tunnels," said a department spokesman in a statement. "The workers have been reassigned to other duties."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) had pushed for the move after initially learning of their plight during a congressional hearing in mid-March. In 2000, the Congressional Office of Compliance detailed 13,000 health and safety violations. In February, the office filed another complaint, alleging that the architect's office had "effectively ignored . . . many potentially life-threatening safety and health violations."

"For far too long, these workers were exposed to deadly concentrations of asbestos while the Architect's Office turned its back on their complaints," Murray said in a statement yesterday.

Thayer said that although Murray means well, this is not the result his men expected.

"All we wanted was to get" out of the tunnel, he said, "and be compensated for what they did to us."

Thayer's doctor said he has scarring on both lungs. Nearly a decade ago, when Thayer was 33, a government doctor said his lungs looked like they belonged to someone 118 years old, he said. Now, he and his men will lose about $600 a month in hazardous-duty pay.

"I'm damaged goods," he said. "Who is winning? Not us."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company