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Aria faces safety charges on asbestos job Alleged violations at Buffalo warehouse preceded Kensington Heights no-bid pact

The Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority last month gave Aria Contracting of Orchard Park a no-bid $3.3 million contract for work at Kensington Heights, one of the biggest asbestos-removal and demolition jobs in Buffalo's recent history.

Aria was accused Wednesday of committing eight "serious" worker safety violations while doing asbestos removal work at a North Buffalo warehouse.

The alleged violations took place last year while Aria was removing asbestos from a warehouse at 2925 Main St., according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Aria did not do enough to train its workers or make sure they took safety precautions to avoid inhaling potentially life-threatening particles of asbestos, said Arthur Dube, OSHA's Buffalo area director.

Among the safety violations charged against the company:

* Some asbestos workers wore "ripped and torn protective suits" and were not wearing the required respiratory protection gear.

* Workers had not been adequately trained on the hazards of working with asbestos.

* The company failed to conduct an "initial exposure monitoring" to accurately determine the airborne concentrations of asbestos to which the workers were exposed.

* Aria did not place barriers over all openings to the area where work was being performed, and the company did not have "a competent person" to make sure all proper safeguards were followed.

In addition to the asbestos hazards, a worker was "exposed to a 30-foot fall" while climbing off a piece of machinery at the site, OSHA said. The agency said the worker did not fall but could have fallen because proper safety procedures were not followed.

OSHA is seeking $56,000 in fines from Aria, Dube said.

Terrence Gilbride, an attorney for the Housing Authority, issued a statement Wednesday:

"The BMHA was not made aware of these government allegations prior to its engagement with Aria. The accusations have nothing to do with the Kensington Heights project. And we are confident that Aria, especially given EPA inspection responsibilities, will fully comply with all governmental requirements for remediation at Kensington Heights."

Joseph A. Mascia, a tenant representative on the Housing Authority's board of directors, was alarmed when a reporter informed him of the OSHA charges. He said he plans to bring up his concerns to other board members at a safety committee meeting.

"I think we should definitely take a second look at this [Kensington Heights] project," Mascia said. "If something goes wrong out there, it's going to put the Housing Authority at risk. We'll be held responsible."

Just last week, Aria began asbestos-removal work at Kensington Heights, the long-abandoned city public housing project on Fillmore Avenue.

The Buffalo News reported Monday that Aria got the no-bid $3.3 million contract from the Housing Authority last month to remove asbestos and demolish two high-rise buildings at the site.

The authority also tentatively agreed to give Aria a second no-bid contract to tear down four other buildings for $5 million if funding can be obtained, The News reported.

Authority officials explained that they awarded the contract to Aria without competitive bidding because the project is an "emergency situation" that must be addressed as soon as possible to ensure the safety of people who live nearby.

At least two local demolition contractors have sent protest letters to the authority, asking why no other contractors were invited to submit bids on the new Kensington Heights contract.

The warehouse job where the alleged safety violations occurred last year has no connection to Kensington Heights, a lawyer for Aria said Wednesday.

The company president, James Jerge, denies that any safety violations took place at the warehouse job site, said the attorney, Robert G. Walsh.

"We've set up an informal conference with OSHA for May 30, and if we cannot resolve things then, we will contest these charges," Walsh said.

Aria Contracting does not have an extensive record of safety violations on its asbestos jobs, said Michael Stratton, assistant OSHA director in Buffalo.

Aria, which has been in business since at least the 1990s, is on North Buffalo Street in Orchard Park.

According to court records, a state appeals court in December 1998 rejected Aria Contracting's appeal after the company was found guilty of 14 state code violations involving the removal of asbestos.

Court papers said the violations were investigated by the state Labor Department's Asbestos Control Bureau, but the records do not specify where the violations occurred.

In 1994, authorities said Jerge became a cooperating government witness to help the FBI build a criminal case against a civil engineer for the City of Niagara Falls. Prosecutors said the engineer demanded a $30,000 bribe from Jerge, then-vice president of a Buffalo asbestos removal company called Zeon Corp.

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com