ATU 689 Union representing DC Metro workers: Don’t ignore asbestos, WMATA

ATU 689 Union representing DC Metro workers: Don’t ignore asbestos, WMATA
Dr. Gridlock
ATU 689 Union representing DC Metro workers: Don’t ignore asbestos, WMATA

By Faiz Siddiqui July 29 at 12:08 PM
The union representing many of Metro’s workers says the presence of asbestos in older train cars is a safety issue that must not go ignored.

David Stephen, a spokesman for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, issued a statement Wednesday following reports a day earlier that hundreds of older Metro cars contain a “small amount of asbestos.” Stephen said the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority must address issue.

“In the past, WMATA has seemed to ignore every safety issue unless it came from an [National Transportation Safety Board] directive,” Stephen said. “We hope that Metro will not wait for a tragedy or NTSB directive if further safety precaution is necessary with respect to the asbestos exposure issue.”

Reports on Tuesday highlighted that hundreds of older Metro cars contain a small amount of asbestos in the heater box behind the evaporator in each rail car. The asbestos is only in the system’s 280 remaining 1000-series cars, which date back to its opening in 1976.

The details about the asbestos came to light because Metro had issued a contract proposal seeking its removal ahead of the cars’ retirement.

A Metro spokeswoman said the material does not pose a threat to passengers or employees and that those cars are soon to be replaced. Some, however, said the presence of asbestos — which puts people at risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma — is never safe.

“Millions of passengers a year ride these subway cars, not to mention Metro employees, who likely came into much closer contact with the areas where the asbestos is and are likely at greater risk,” said Alex Formuzis, Vice President for Strategic Campaigns at the non-profit Environmental Working Group Action Fund, in a statement.

Stephen said he hopes Metro will proactively address the asbestos, and not wait until ordered to do so.

“Like all safety issues, we look to Metro to respond swiftly and effectively so that the risk to safety of our members and Metro’s riders is as small as possible,” Stephen said in the statement. “If further protection is necessary, we expect Metro to respond immediately.”

In an interview Wednesday, Stephen said that Metro’s approach to safety can be frustrating.

“Placing all of the responsibility on the employees when there are procedures that should be taken in order to ensure safety that they’re not doing, that’s the problem,” he said. “Metro embraces a culture of discipline, not a culture of safety.”

Faiz Siddiqui is a metro reporter covering transportation and local issues. He has previously contributed to NPR, The Boston Globe and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.