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Hearing Planned Into Treatment of Allegations of Asbestos at Smithsonian

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By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A member of Congress said yesterday that he would hold a hearing to investigate health-and-safety allegations regarding the handling of asbestos at the Smithsonian Institution.

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House Administration Committee Chairman Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.) said the April hearing is meant to investigate "dangerous workplace conditions" at the Smithsonian after The Washington Post's article Sunday about a worker who contends that his work on asbestos-containing walls at the National Air and Space Museum made him sick.

Museum lighting specialist Richard Pullman, 53, filed a federal whistleblower claim yesterday with the Office of Special Counsel alleging that the institution retaliated by effectively demoting him for reporting workplace-safety violations. The Smithsonian denies retaliating but acknowledges that it did not notify some workers of the asbestos.

Spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said that the museum is safe for visitors and that tests show there is nothing harmful in the air. "Visitors are not allowed to walk into construction areas -- of [Air and Space] or any other museum -- and therefore they cannot be exposed to any potentially hazardous fibers," she said in an e-mail.

Pullman's attorneys tried to cast doubt on that claim by alleging that debris remains in the museum with a risk of becoming airborne.

Pullman's diagnosis is of asbestosis, a progressive and potentially fatal lung disease linked to breathing asbestos fibers. His workers' compensation claim was denied, and he is appealing.

A 27-year employee at the Air and Space museum, Pullman said he learned one year ago that the compound used to join walls at the Air and Space museum contained asbestos. "I felt completely betrayed," Pullman said yesterday at a news conference at the National Press Club.

Brady, who leads the committee that oversees the Smithsonian, criticized museum officials who acknowledged to The Post that notification regarding asbestos had not been passed to workers after a consultant's finding in 1992 that the walls contained asbestos.

"I am extremely concerned over allegations that the health and safety of Smithsonian visitors and workers have been compromised by a lack of communication and inadequate protection," Brady said. "The rationale that staff and organizational changes have prevented effective action is unacceptable."

In the whistleblower filing, Pullman's attorneys also made a fresh allegation of a workplace violation: that contractors on Feb. 3 "tracked drywall dust and debris into museum galleries visited by the public because the contractors were not following the proper asbestos procedures."

Pullman's attorney David J. Marshall wrote in a letter to the office, "The museum attempted to clean up the potential asbestos release but its efforts were most likely not adequate because NASM management insisted that cleanup work be completed before the Museum opened at 10 a.m."

The Office of Special Counsel investigates retaliation against workers for reporting wrongdoing. Whistleblower cases in recent years generally have been unsuccessful, said lawyer Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Office, which is urging the Obama administration to support reforms proposed by Congress.

One of the few successful cases involved the Air and Space Museum. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board in 2007 ordered the Smithsonian to reinstate museum specialist Michael Cross, who alleged he was fired in retaliation for reporting that ranking officials of the aviation museum had used the institution's world-class aeronautical restoration facility in Maryland for personal projects. The case is now in U.S. District Court, and Cross left the museum earlier this year.


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