Lethal Labor: Meet the Tunnel Rats

"Tunnel Rats" of Washington, D.C. work in unforgiving conditions; temperatures often exceed 160-degrees, immense chunks of concrete plummet from the ceiling, and the perilous passages are engulfed in welding fumes, pulverized asbestos, and concrete dust. The shafts are so out of control, the Capitol Police refuse to venture into them out of concern for the safety of their dogs. The fire department will not attempt an emergency rescue as there is a lack of communication system and, due to the extremely cramped conditions, access is extremely limited. But that is merely the tip of the iceberg--the Architect of the Capitol had been purposely misleading them for years about the dangerous levels of asbestos exposure in the passages.

Lethal Labor: Meet the Tunnel Rats

by Sophie Morgan

"We’re not going to be pushed around anymore." John Thayer is no longer holding back. But who can blame him? After 22 years as the supervisor of the Capitol Power Plant Tunnel Crew, a subsidiary of The Architect of the Capitol, he has helped keep those in cushy seats in the District of Columbia comfortable in both hot and cold weather. Thayer is a part of a group of 10 men who patrol five miles of underground utility tunnels that supply heating and cooling to many of the complexes on Capitol Hill, including all of Congress and 20 other federal office buildings. However, do not let the idea of working under Capitol Hill derail your thoughts from the cold, hard truth that the Tunnel Crew, aptly nicknamed the "Tunnel Rats," work in unforgiving conditions; temperatures often exceed 160-degrees, immense chunks of concrete plummet from the ceiling, and the perilous passages are engulfed in welding fumes, pulverized asbestos, and concrete dust. The shafts are so out of control, the Capitol Police refuse to venture into them out of concern for the safety of their dogs. The fire department will not attempt an emergency rescue as there is a lack of communication system and, due to the extremely cramped conditions, access is extremely limited. But that is merely the tip of the iceberg.

More than one year ago, the Tunnel Rats were presented with a bit of truly horrifying information: The Architect of the Capitol had been purposely misleading them for years about the dangerous levels of asbestos exposure in the passages. While the company knew, they never bothered to inform their workers that the concentration of airborne asbestos were extremely toxic - 30 to 40 times the legal limit. After Thayer and his crew came about this terrifying news, they demanded to look at their yearly physical records only to find out exactly how appalling the situation was. At age 33, Thayer’s lungs had been so severely damaged, it looked as if they belonged in the body of a 118 year old. However, no one ever told any of the Rats this information; on the contrary, each worker was given an annual physical and an annual pass, clearing them for another year of lethal labor. Even more despicable is the fact that every one of the crew members brought home those toxic levels of asbestos in their clothing, posing severe risks for their family and children. In response, the Rats decided to seek some answers for themselves. After traveling to Detroit at their own expense to be examined by Dr. Michael Harbut, a nationally-renowned expert at the Karmanos Cancer Institute, the news was even worse: All ten of the workers are sick as a direct result of the daily exposure to asbestos. Seven of the ten have asbestosis, a chronic lung disease associated with asbestos exposure. Each are at a dangerously high risk for developing lung cancer or worse, mesotheliomia, a highly uncommon form of lung cancer that is related solely to exposure. From simply going to work and doing their jobs, the workers have caught something that will indefinitely shorten each of their lives.

Instead of receiving praise for their diligent work and tolerating the unbearable circumstances they are forced to labor in, the Tunnel Rats have faced retaliation for blowing the whistle on the Architect of the Capitol and have taken their case to the federal courts as well as Congress. It is a tragedy that hard working people have the need to seek court assistance for compensation for injuries and to defend their rights to speak out for a safe workplace. The crew has faced harassment and threats for alerting Congress and the court system to the life-threatening levels of asbestos and other hazards they have faced while working in the tunnels.

The Architect of the Capitol continues to misrepresent working conditions in the tunnels. They have hired private contractors to sweep the issue under the rug by using such disgusting tactics as trying to rid asbestos through the use of a power washer in some of the passages as well as other methods that are in blatant violation of OSHA regulations. These contractors show absolute disregard for public health by allowing asbestos to be released into the air through grates in sidewalks and streets along Capitol Hill. As recently as a few months ago, crew members’ personal monitoring devices showed levels of airborne asbestos that were more than six times the allowable exposure in the tunnels. One can only imagine what is in the lungs of the average citizen of the District of Columbia.

After more than a year of delegation, an out-of-court settlement has been reached by the Tunnel Rats and The Architect of the Capitol, the terms of which are confidential. However, the agreement covers only the workers’ whistle blowing claims. It does not address the serious physical injuries the crew has suffered from dozens of years of exposure to asbestos and other toxins. No matter the dollar amount, there will be no resolution that will repair the unimaginable damage done to these workers lives and bodies, not to mention the potential damage done to their families and quite possibly the vast majority of the citizens of the District of Columbia.

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From Insubordinate #1