Feds interviewing witnesses in Lockport asbestos investigation

By Mike Hudson

County spin doctors went into overdrive last week as federal criminal investigators interviewed witnesses and collected evidence relating to the likely illegal removal of dangerous asbestos from the basement of the Shaw Building by a crew of untrained and unskilled welfare recipients.

While County Manager Jeffrey Glatz and Risk Management Director Jennifer Pitarresi said a probe of the case may result in disciplinary action against whomever directed the removal, they maintained that no health risks resulted from the cleanout of the Shaw Building basement, which involved some 20 welfare recipients working for several days over a two week period in May and removing enough possibly contaminated material to fill three dumpsters.

Meanwhile, NYS state investigators informed the county late Thursday that repeated testing of the Shaw site had found no airborne contamination and tests of surfaces found that only a small portion of floor immediately adjacent to a basement door indicated minimally positive tests for surface contamination.

That information, released by the county to local media, came in a telephone conference with asbestos experts employed by the state’s Public Employ Safety and Health Bureau (PESH).

PESH also advised the county to continue monitoring via a company licensed in handling asbestos.

The county hired 56 Services Inc., a Buffalo based consulting firm specializing in asbestos and hazardous waste abatement projects. Bill Rutland, president of the county’s blue collar worker’s union, said that 56 Services should have been called in prior to the project.

“The first thing they did was seal off the door leading to the basement,” he said. “If there’s no hazard, why would the seal off the door?”

A spokesman for the county, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “56 Services is conducting an asbestos survey—something that apparently was never conducted under Public Works Commissioner Kevin O’Brien, despite 15 years’ employment with the county during which he acknowledges he was aware of asbestos at the Shaw Building.”

The county uses welfare recipients to perform menial jobs in return for benefits, normally sending crews out to mow lawns, pick up litter and do painting jobs, under a state-mandated welfare-to-work requirement. But during the third week of May, 20 workers assigned to the Shaw Building were ordered into the basement and told to remove whatever they found there. The dumpsters were placed in the parking lot, and the workers, carrying everything from old furniture to insulated pipe, walked through the basement door and out to the lot.

Rutland said he believed the activity put his union workers in the building at risk and reported the activity to the state. Members of the public were also in the building at the time the work was taking place, and the welfare workers spent hours in the basement with no overalls, boots, respirators, gloves or even surgical masks to protect them.

Rutland scoffed at the county officials’ talk of “disciplinary action.”

“The federal government does not have criminal investigators looking into this in the interest of taking someone’s job,” he said. “They clearly think that crimes have been committed here.”

A top county official we spoke with noted, however, no individuals from those agencies have indicated any criminal investigation underway to county leadership.

County officials also claim that PESH testing of material Rutland says is asbestos actually turned out to be a commercial spill removing product called “Speedi Dri.” That product is used to clean up oil, grease, anti-freeze, and solvents—materials all commonly found in automobile garages.

“It’s disturbing that Mr. Rutland, an auto mechanic on the county payroll, can’t recognize a product he is supposed to be around and use pretty much every day,” a source close to Glatz’s office said.

Last week, Adam Buchbinder of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigations Division, and NYS DEC Environmental Crimes Investigator Charles Lohr interviewed a number of witnesses in the case.

Attempts to reach Buchbinder and Lohr at press time were unsuccessful, but their investigation comes on the heels of probes into the asbestos removal by the Niagara County Sheriff’s Dept. Crime Scene Investigations Unit, the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bureau of Environmental Crime, and the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

County officials should have known about the hazardous conditions in the basement of the Shaw Building, an 84 year old edifice that once served as the county sanatorium.

In 2002, monitoring uncovered toxic levels of asbestos, mostly from the crumbling insulation placed around the building’s plumbing in the days before the danger of asbestos was known.

The basement door was padlocked and the asbestos hazard was largely forgotten until last year when the county’s maintenance supervisor, Thomas Williams, ordered two county laborers (AFSCME union) to go down in the basement and hook up a sink he wanted installed on the first floor.

The men refused, and Rutland became involved.

Rutland said he and Williams discussed the asbestos hazard at length.

Another way to hook up the sink was found that didn’t involve going into the basement and, again, the matter was forgotten until the welfare workers were ordered in last month.

County officials privately acknowledged being concerned about Williams’ activities, and one suggested he may very likely face disciplinary action based on Rutland’s claims.

County investigators’ crosshairs also seem to be lined up on O’Brien, who, they claim, acknowledged to Glatz that he was aware of asbestos at Shaw but had never conducted a required asbestos survey of the building.

Conditions in the basement were bad.

“There were only a few lights, spaced about 50 feet apart, and unless you were right by them you couldn’t see anything in the dark,” said Ryan Mack, one of the cleanup workers. “Then the basement turned into a crawlspace and there wasn’t any light there at all.

The dust was thick in the air, and became worse as workers began moving items out for disposal, he added.

Federal law provides strict guidelines on the responsibility of employers where asbestos exposure is concerned.

“Where there is exposure, employers are required to further protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and instituting engineering controls to reduce the airborne levels,” the department warns. “The employer is required to ensure exposure is reduced by using administrative controls and provide for the wearing of personal protective equipment. Medical monitoring of workers is also required when legal limits and exposure times are exceeded.”

Clearly, none of these protocols was followed by whomever ordered 20 welfare recipients into the basement.

Since the story of the asbestos abatement project was first reported on June 9, triggering the expanded investigation into the matter, county officials have insinuated that asbestos laden objects were “planted” at the scene to make the situation look worse than it actually was.

“This was not an asbestos abatement project. It was a ‘moving some old furniture’ project,” Pitarresi told the county Legislature last week after Niagara Falls Legislator Dennis Virtuoso asked for an update on the project.

She did not indicate who ordered the welfare workers into the basement, or who removed the padlock that had closed it off for more than a decade, since evidence of asbestos contamination was first discovered there.

A release sent out by the county’s information officer, Christian W. Peck, claims that officials were told verbally by state Public Employee Safety and Health investigators that no significant asbestos contamination was uncovered.

County officials’ statements and press releases have contained information that makes it seem as though Rutland’s concerns are overblown.

In the end, it will be neither the officials nor Rutland’s assessment of what happened that matters. The answers provided by a multi-agency criminal investigation.

In a further development, several county and welfare workers have contacted the Reporter claiming that it is common practice for certain county workers assigned to oversee the welfare workfare project to steal scrap metal to sell privately, take free food from the food kitchen  and to secrete supplies meant for county projects for their personal use.

One worker said, “one guy —–   remodeled his entire home with county supplies stolen from the job.”

Another witness said he watched a certain county worker take the scrap metal from the Shaw Building job and put it in his vehicle instead of the dumpster.

County officials indicated to the Reporter that they were well aware of these allegations and were conducting an investigation into this matter.

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