Congress to Examine Capitol Maintenance

Construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which is scheduled to open next year, has overrun cost estimates and has taken longer than expected.
Construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which is scheduled to open next year, has overrun cost estimates and has taken longer than expected. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Congress is tightening oversight of the Architect of the Capitol, trying to restore order to an office that has been accused of seriously mismanaging one high-profile project while ignoring health and safety hazards affecting federal workers.

The House Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch intends to hold hearings next week on budget overruns, the overdue Capitol Visitor Center as well as asbestos-laden utility tunnels the office did not fix.

Lawmakers are so concerned with restoring order to the office that there is growing talk on Capitol Hill about selecting a "turnaround artist" as the architect to replace Alan M. Hantman, who served in the post from 1997 until February. Congress vets the nominees, and the president appoints one to a 10-year term. Stephen T. Ayers is the acting architect until a permanent successor is chosen. Congress has also appropriated money in next year's budget to hire an inspector general and staff to monitor the architect's management practices and budget.

The visitor center is expected to open next year under the east side of the Capitol at a cost of $600 million -- about double the original estimate and three years late, earning the nickname "Pig Dig" from the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste. The three-level, 580,000-square-foot center will include workspace for Congress, 26 bathrooms and a cafeteria that can accommodate 550 people.

The architect's office has blamed the delays and overruns on design changes over the years, much of it dictated by security concerns after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and by demands by the House and Senate for additional space. But critics, including some lawmakers, attribute some of the delays and overruns to weak management.

The utility tunnels, meanwhile, have sparked legal challenges by federal workers, who say the architect's office knowingly exposed them to health hazards for years. Health and safety hazards in the tunnels have been linked to lung damage in nine of 10 tunnel workers.

"I want to know what happened and what we can do to prevent anything like this from repeating so that people never again are left languishing for years," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the subcommittee's chairman.

Ten federal workers say that they got sick from years of working in asbestos-filled utility tunnels beneath the Capitol complex and that when they went public with their problems last year, the architect's office retaliated against them.

The workers reached a settlement last month with the office over their retaliation complaint. But that financial settlement, the terms of which remain confidential, addressed just the harassment charges and was unrelated to their injuries, said John Thayer, a tunnel worker for 23 years.

He and the others want Congress to approve an unusual payment to compensate them for their injuries.

Nine of the 10 workers, known as "tunnel rats," say they have been told by doctors that their lungs show evidence of exposure to asbestos. Most, including Thayer, left their jobs shortly after the settlement was signed on June 19. It is unclear whether the agreement required them to quit.

"People are under the assumption we got a huge, multimillion-dollar settlement, which is false," Thayer said. "We can't do the jobs we're used to doing because of our documented health problems and the conditions in the tunnels. Some of us don't have health coverage. We're essentially asking Congress to appropriate money for personal injury compensation for us and our families."

But they face an uphill fight. Federal law prevents workers such as Thayer from claiming injury compensation from the government. The workers and their advocates argue that their case is so extreme, the government owes them.

"This case is very unusual because of the nature of the exposure and the carcinogens they were exposed to without protection," said Linda Reinstein, executive director of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. "It's not just about 10 people, it's about their wives and children," she added, noting that the men may have carried home asbestos fibers on their clothing.

The tunnels, constructed around the turn of the 20th century, carry steam to heat the Capitol and other federal buildings in winter and chilled water to cool them in summer. Government investigators found that they were strewn with fallen debris tainted with asbestos, a known carcinogen.

The workers complained for years about unhealthful work conditions. In 1999, the Office of Compliance, created by Congress to address workplace safety and employment rights issues for workers in the legislative branch, identified a series of safety hazards in the tunnels and ordered the architect's office to fix them. Nothing happened.

In February, the compliance office found the Architect of the Capitol had "effectively ignored . . . many potentially life-threatening safety and health violations."

The tunnel workers say when they contacted members of Congress for help last year, the architect's office threatened to fire them and withheld supplies they needed to work in a blazingly hot environment. They were preparing to sue the architect's office for retaliation when the settlement was struck.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company