After eight months of negotiation and a mounting avalanche of negative press, the Architect of the Capitol agreed in May to settle a lawsuit by employees who maintain utility lines in the asbestos-infested tunnels beneath the nation’s legislative buildings (see It’s Still Here and Nothing’s Being Done).

Though dangerous levels of asbestos fibers were discovered in the tunnels seven years ago, no action was taken to correct the hazard until the employees filed their suit. Under the terms of the settlement, the Architect will:

  • Clean up the hazard within five years
  • Conduct a baseline audit to identify all hazards in the tunnels and develop a comprehensive site management plan
  • Meet monthly with the Office of Compliance so that the Office can monitor progress toward hazard abatement

Extensions will be allowed only by mutual consent of the parties or if necessitated by budget shortfalls. Because of the possibility of shortfalls, however, on-going scrutiny and pressure may be required. Last year, despite a $27.6 million emergency allocation, no clean-up action was initiated. Senator Patty Murray (D – WA) – who criticized the Architect for ignoring the tunnel problems last April and who has led the so far unsuccessful effort to ban asbestos use throughout the U.S. – noted the lack of a definite abatement plan in the settlement and urged complete removal of the asbestos.

The negative publicity is likely to continue until the Architect fully attacks the problem. For the millions of victims of the nation’s asbestos crisis (see Stakeholders Pick Apart Asbestos Compensation Bill), the tunnel situation has become a convenient and useful symbol of government indifference and stubbornness. While victims suffer from debilitating and ultimately deadly asbestos-related disease, the Congress has failed to resolve the judicial backlog that has clogged the courts and prevents victims from securing compensation from recalcitrant employers.

More information on the crisis is available from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. The LHSFNA publishes a health alert (Asbestos in Construction) and respiratory protection manual (Face It: A Laborer’s Guide to Respiratory Protection) that address the basic problem and suggest protective actions. They are available to LIUNA members and participating signatory employers through the LHSFNA Publications Catalogue.

[Steve Clark]