Putting Mentally Disabled Workers at Risk Is No Way to Cut Corners

By Marc Fisher
Sunday, March 16, 2008

Demolishing a building that dates back to the days of asbestos is a complicated business. You need to examine the construction method and, often, call in the men in white suits.

When the Federal Aviation Administration decided to knock down an old guard shack last year on the grounds of the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center in Leesburg, no such precautions were taken. Instead, managers called in a crew of mentally disabled people and put them to work at the site, which had been found in 1993 to contain asbestos.

Now, the FAA says, the agency's inspector general, federal prosecutors in Alexandria and a grand jury are investigating whether the decision to give part of the job to people with severe disabilities was a purposeful attempt to circumvent procedures.

"They used a groundskeeping crew from a disadvantaged group to clean up the debris," said Diane Spitaliere, an FAA spokeswoman. She said federal investigators are looking into whether FAA managers knowingly assigned the crew to a job involving toxic materials, endangering the workers' health.

The guard shack, which had two small rooms and was about the size of a walk-in closet, became superfluous after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the FAA extended the security perimeter around the facility. The center, with about 400 workers, handles air traffic from the Carolinas to New Jersey, including the busy airspace over the Washington area's three major airports.

Shortly after the demolition in July, a security guard at the traffic control center, at Route 7 and Lawson Road, told superiors that "mentally-challenged contract employees were disposing of asbestos containing material," according to an FAA white paper on the incident obtained by The Washington Post.

It wasn't until a month after the work was done that FAA managers checked a 1993 survey of asbestos at the facility and concluded that the floor tiles in the shack contained the toxic material, the report says.

The FAA's initial report on the incident quoted a manager at the site who said that the crew of mentally disabled workers "was not involved in the incident," but Spitaliere says that is not true.

"We didn't follow our own procedures," which require special permits and handling of material that contains asbestos, she said, adding that a required pre-demolition test for asbestos "was not done." And the FAA was unable to trace where the debris ended up; federal environmental regulations require that asbestos-laden materials be placed in labeled bags and sent to an approved landfill.

Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney in Alexandria and the U.S. Transportation Department's inspector general said their policy is not to confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

A crew of about half a dozen workers from Echo Inc. (Every Citizen Has Opportunities), a Leesburg-based charity that trains and provides jobs for mentally retarded and other disabled people in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, has handled groundskeeping duties at the FAA facility for three decades, Echo Executive Director William Haney said.

Haney said that when he heard about the asbestos incident, he asked the FAA for a written report on what role his workers had played but "never got anything." Haney was told that the workers' role in the demolition was "incidental," but, he said, "I just don't know what went on."

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