Smithsonian Secretary Assures House Panel That Asbestos Poses No Risk to Workers

(Bill O'leary - The Washington Post)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009

In response to criticism of the handling of asbestos in Smithsonian Institution buildings, Secretary G. Wayne Clough yesterday told a congressional panel he had ordered free health screenings for all employees and a "complete review" of safety policies and procedures.

"I want to assure the committee and the American people that our museums are safe, open and free as always," Clough told the Committee on House Administration, which has jurisdiction over Smithsonian operations. "We have never had an indication of unacceptable levels of asbestos risk to the public in any of our museums."

He announced that all current or former Smithsonian employees, and its large corps of volunteers, will be offered free screenings at the Smithsonian Occupational Health Services.

The hearing was called after The Washington Post reported last month that an exhibits specialist at the National Air and Space Museum said he and his fellow workers had not been told of the presence of asbestos in the museum's walls and ceilings. The Smithsonian had known about the asbestos since 1992. The employee, Richard Pullman, has been diagnosed with asbestosis, a lung disease related to asbestos, and was present at the hearing but did not testify.

A cleanup of the museum was initiated last month, and Clough's statement yesterday marked his first public comment on the matter. Clough said the fact that Pullman and his co-workers in the exhibitions production staff were not given asbestos handling training "was an oversight. We have corrected it."

He also said he took Pullman's complaint seriously.

"Any worker at the Smithsonian has the right to call attention to safety issues on the job and always will," Clough said. "We are certainly concerned about Mr. Pullman's health and well-being. I assure you he has been and will continue to be treated fairly and equitably."

In the hearing room, Clough approached Pullman and told him, "You are one of us."

Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), the chairman of the committee, said he wanted to know if the Smithsonian had been complying "with federal laws and best practices in controlling asbestos."

A group of asbestos experts and construction officials testified after Clough.

James August, an independent occupational health and safety consultant, said past policies for dealing with asbestos-containing materials had "serious deficiencies. . . . Smithsonian Institution safety policies have in all likelihood resulted in significant, albeit avoidable, asbestos exposure to building service workers."

Daniel O. Chute, a certified industrial hygienist, said the institution's asbestos control policy was sound. "Upon review of the written program, it appears to be thorough and complete," he said. He added that his review did not include an on-site inspection.

In addition to Air and Space, asbestos issues also surfaced at a second museum, the National Museum of American History. More asbestos than expected was discovered during the museum's renovation in 2006 and 2007.

William M. Brennan, the executive vice president for Turner Construction Co., the general contractor for the project, said his workers expected to find asbestos in 40 to 50 places. "We found 250 situations," he told the panel. He said they built a containment area at each junction and didn't allow construction workers back until it was "declared clean."

"In spite of the excessive cost, we had the highest level of support from the Smithsonian," Brennan said. Clough said that since 1990 the Smithsonian had spent $15.5 million on lead and asbestos abatement throughout the complex.

During the renovation, the building was closed to the public, but the staff continued to work there. Members of a local steamfitters union have said that asbestos dust was "carried throughout the building" in vents because proper precautions weren't followed. But Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said the construction area was walled off from the rest of the building and the asbestos couldn't travel to the staff areas because it had a separate air handling system.

St. Thomas also said that a March 24 Post request to the Smithsonian for work documents at the American History Museum was pending under a 20-day deadline for a response.

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