Asbestos Issue Emerges at Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Asbestos precautions weren't followed during American History Museum renovations, according to a steamfitters union.
Asbestos precautions weren't followed during American History Museum renovations, according to a steamfitters union. (Smithsonian Institution)

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By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Members of a steamfitters union local said that in 2007, asbestos dust filled the air during renovation of the National Museum of American History because contractors repeatedly failed to take legally required precautions while removing insulation.

A Smithsonian spokeswoman said that as soon as institution safety workers found the problems, they immediately corrected procedures and turned off fans. The museum was closed to the public at the time during a two-year renovation, but American History's full-time staff of curators and employees continued to work in the building.

William Durkin Jr., a representative of Steamfitters Local 602, said that on at least one occasion, it took days before the correct procedures were implemented by the general contractor, Philadelphia-based Turner Construction. Durkin said workers broke apart asbestos-insulated pipes without posting signs or wearing protective clothing. Asbestos is known to cause lung cancer.

"The dust became airborne and the air circulation equipment continued to operate," Durkin said. Vents then "carried it throughout the museum." In a union newsletter at the time, Durkin wrote, "This cavalier attitude is inexcusable."

Durkin told The Washington Post yesterday, "Turner blamed it on the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian blamed it on Turner."

Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said, "Whenever the Smithsonian contract supervisor heard of any problem, he stepped in and shut down the job until abatement was completed."

Last month, The Post reported that officials at another Smithsonian museum, National Air and Space, knew for 17 years about asbestos in the compound covering wall joints but did not tell the workers. Richard Pullman, 53, an electrician and exhibit specialist who works on the walls, has received a diagnosis of asbestosis, a progressive lung disease related to breathing asbestos fibers, and has filed a federal Whistleblower Protection Act complaint.

House Administration Committee Chairman Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.) has scheduled a hearing today about asbestos at the Smithsonian. Testifying will be Secretary G. Wayne Clough and two contractors for the Smithsonian, including a representative of Turner Construction. Turner officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Pullman's attorney, David J. Marshall, criticized the committee for not inviting workers to testify at the hearing. "It doesn't really look like they are going to get a full picture of what is happening at the Smithsonian," Marshall said.

Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for Brady, said he did not know why workers were not included. "Witnesses were selected based upon their expert status on asbestos issues and their ability to provide concrete evaluation of the effectiveness of current procedures," Anderson said.

The American History Museum was constructed from 1958 to 1964, years before the federal government restricted the fire-resistant asbestos mineral in building materials. A survey conducted by a Smithsonian consultant in 1989 found asbestos in the building, and removal began during renovations. During the renovation from 2006 to 2008, additional asbestos was discovered by workers.

Other employees were aware that asbestos had been found, but they did not know that the union alleged that asbestos had been released in the air, said a curator at the museum who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. "There was some to-do about asbestos, and some asbestos-detection apparatus arrayed around the office corridors," the curator said. "But it was not put to us as a life-threatening hazard that required action."

St. Thomas said the other museum employees were separated by walls from the areas with asbestos.

Terry Rulapaugh, a union member and mechanical subcontractor on the project, said asbestos pipe insulation was torn up and released into the air when a bathroom was demolished. "We wanted it checked," Rulapaugh said. "They started tearing down the walls before they checked. When they did check, they found it was asbestos."

St. Thomas said one worker was incorrectly told that an area was free from asbestos. A Smithsonian supervisor inspected the area and shut down the project. The worker who provided the wrong information was removed, she said. "Fans [were] turned off so dust could not travel around the building," St. Thomas said. "Ducts were wiped, proper procedures used. Air samples followed and were not hazardous."

It is not clear what Turner was told in advance about asbestos in the American History Museum. Smithsonian officials have yet to answer a Post request to provide work documents on the renovation.

In the past, at the Air and Space Museum, contractors, as well as museum employees, did not receive complete information about asbestos in the walls, according to documents and interviews. One 2005 document shows that the museum understated the amount of asbestos in the joint compound, telling contractors that it was at a level below the amount that would have required costly precautions under federal law.

"Anything that exceeds the OSHA permissible level requires special treatment and protective gear," said St. Thomas.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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