WASHINGTON - December 13 - Ten legislative branch steamfitters who risked their jobs by revealing extreme asbestos contamination and other hazards in utility tunnels servicing federal buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, will be honored with the Joe A. Callaway Award for Civic Courage on Thursday, December 14. The members of the Capitol Power Plant “tunnel crew” are represented by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and the law firm of Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP, in a whistleblower complaint against their employer, the Architect of the Capitol (AoC), for harassment and retaliation after they made their safety concerns public.
The Callaway Award was established in 1990 to recognize courageous individuals who, with integrity and at some personal risk, take a public stance to advance truth and justice, and who challenged prevailing conditions in pursuit of the common good. The Shafeek Nader Trust for the Community Interest administers the award. The event begins at 5 p.m. tomorrow, at the Carnegie Institution Building at 1530 P. St. NW in Washington, D.C.
“The tunnel crew works under extremely hazardous conditions,” stated GAP Senior Counsel Joanne Royce, a lawyer for the workers. “They have risked their jobs to report these conditions to Congress and the public, and they certainly deserve the recognition they are getting through receipt of the Callaway award.”
The tunnel crew has worked unprotected in a lethal environment for years, threatened by falling concrete, temperatures exceeding 130 degrees, and sustained exposure to asbestos and other toxins. This continued even after the AoC was cited in 2000 and ordered to correct the problems. The police department deemed the tunnels too dangerous to patrol. The fire department advised that they would be unable to rescue an injured worker trapped in the tunnels due to the lack of communications systems and absence of emergency exits. Earlier this year, media outlets documented the crew’s dangerous working conditions, the grievances they filed that went ignored, and ultimately their appeal to Congress. The publicity led to harassment
The tunnel crew first complained internally to the AoC in 1999. Then the Office of Compliance issued three citations against the AoC for violating the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), one in 2000 and two in 2006. Though vindicated by the initial citation, the next five years yielded no improvements in working conditions. In early 2006, the tunnel workers wrote to several members of Congress with their grievances, later attending Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearings and speaking to the press.
In response, management confronted the workers and berated them for their actions. The AoC disparaged the men in letters addressed to members of Congress, falsely accusing the crew of misconduct ranging from insubordination to sabotaging safety improvement efforts. After grudgingly agreeing to give them the standard hazard they’d been denied for years, the AoC then threatened to revoke hazard pay for the crew supervisor who led their fight for safe working conditions.
Senator Dick Durbin met personally with the tunnel workers in late September, expressing his support for their struggle and promising to help facilitate appropriate medical evaluations, which the workers had been denied. In October, Durbin wrote the AoC requesting an immediate response regarding how the AoC planned to ensure appropriate medical diagnoses for the crew at a suitable facility. The workers requested that the AoC pay for evaluations by Dr. Michael Harbut, a nationally-renowned asbestos disease specialist who was already treating several crew members whose insurance was covering the cost. The AoC has denied this request.
Nevertheless, the workers plan to make appointments with Harbut and undergo the $5000 tests, even if they are not reimbursed. They intend to seek compensation for any occupational injuries they have suffered due to the Architect of the Capitol's deliberate indifference to their health and safety.
“Once we’re able to determine the extent of the tunnel workers’ injuries from asbestos and the other toxins they work with,” said David Marshall, an attorney representing the workers, “we fully intend to demand that the Architect of the Capitol compensate them for those injuries. We will sue on the workers’ behalf if that’s what it takes.”
To attend the event, call Meghan Ferris at 202.387.8030.