Capitol Power Plant Utility Tunnels

GAO-07-227R: Published: Nov 16, 2006. Publicly Released: Nov 16, 2006.

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Terrell G. Dorn
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The Architect of the Capitol (AOC), through the Capitol Power Plant (CPP), operates five walkable utility tunnels containing steam and chilled water pipes associated with serving the heating and cooling requirements of the U.S. Capitol and 23 surrounding facilities. The tunnels also carry other utilities, such as fiber optic and telephone lines. The Office of Compliance (OOC), which is responsible for advancing safety, health, and workplace rights in the legislative branch, and the tunnel workers have raised concerns about health and safety issues in the tunnels. Specifically, in March 2006, the utility tunnel workers sent a letter to Congress complaining of unsafe working conditions in the tunnels, including falling concrete, asbestos, and extreme heat. In February 2006, OOC filed a complaint against AOC concerning hazards in the tunnels, including falling concrete, an inadequate communication system for these confined spaces, and inadequate escape exits. According to OOC officials, these conditions had been previously brought to the attention of AOC by OOC inspectors as early as 1999. Following a reinspection in mid-2005, OOC determined that AOC had not made sufficient progress in addressing them and that conditions in the tunnels had deteriorated further. In addition, in January 2006, OOC issued citations for and asked AOC to address a potential asbestos hazard and heat stress conditions. In light of these concerns, Congress asked us to review the condition of the tunnels. Accordingly, we examined (1) the current condition of the tunnels, (2) AOC's plan for making repairs and improvements to the tunnels, and (3) the responsiveness of AOC's plan to the issues raised by OOC and the tunnel workers.

AOC has started to address problems in the tunnels, but their condition remains substantially unchanged--that is, the conditions OOC cited as hazardous remain. For example, AOC has installed supports in some areas of one tunnel to minimize the potential for falling concrete and has required individuals entering the tunnels to wear protective equipment and clothing to shield them from potential asbestos exposure. In addition, AOC is working toward removing the delaminated concrete and cleaning the tunnels, so that the exhaust fans can be turned on to reduce the temperature in the tunnels. An AOC contractor has completed assessments of three of the tunnels and determined that they are not in danger of collapse. The contractor is still assessing the two remaining tunnels and expects to complete these assessments by December 31, 2006. Most other AOC efforts are in the study, planning, or procurement stage. As a result, the potential for falling concrete, asbestos exposure, excessive heat, poor communications, and inadequate escape procedures continue to pose problems. Progress in resolving the problems in the tunnels has been hindered because the tunnel conditions that AOC and its contractors are trying to address make it difficult to work in the tunnels. AOC issued its Utility Tunnel Improvement Plan on August 31, 2006, as directed by the House Committee on Appropriations, but the plan is incomplete, in part because AOC has not completed its assessment of the tunnels. In a June 1, 2006, House report, the House Committee on Appropriations directed AOC to provide to the committee "a plan and budget that strategically addresses long term repairs to the steam tunnels." Combining the information it currently has on the condition of the tunnels, AOC categorized the tunnel projects into immediate and short-term repairs that it estimates will cost about $119 million over the next 6 years. AOC identified another $14.4 million in longer-range initiatives to mitigate the known problems in the tunnels. Such initiatives include conducting quarterly structural inspections and making necessary annual repairs. The plan does not contain an analysis or discussion of options for addressing the immediate and short-term needs of the tunnels, as called for in the House report. AOC does indicate in the plan that it will conduct an alternatives study to evaluate the long-term use of the existing tunnels and options for meeting the Capitol Hill Complex's future utility distribution needs. AOC recognizes that the current plan does not fully respond to the questions raised in the committee's report. According to AOC officials, AOC could not complete the work necessary to respond to all of the requested information in the time allotted. But without information on options and recommendations for addressing tunnel problems and future utility distribution needs, Congress does not get a full picture of the potential solutions to the tunnel problems and their costs. AOC and OOC are working cooperatively to resolve the health and safety concerns in the utility tunnels, but the slow progress of the work has left the tunnel workers frustrated. To settle OOC's January 2006 citations and February 2006 complaint, AOC and OOC are exchanging proposals and discussing ongoing technical issues. OOC has been reviewing AOC's utility improvement plan. While AOC's plan covers the issues raised by the OOC and the tunnel workers, limited work has been completed to date and the workers have no clear picture of when the work will be done. To improve communication, AOC began holding weekly meetings with the tunnel shop workers in April 2006 to discuss tunnel issues and the actions being taken.

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