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Niagara leaders discuss asbestos scare, union president

LOCKPORT – No health risks resulted from the disposal of a piece of asbestos pipe wrapping in a cleanout of the Shaw Building basement by welfare workers last month, Niagara County leaders told the County Legislature late Tuesday night.

But County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz and Risk Management Director Jennifer R. Pitarresi said a probe of the case may result in disciplinary action against whomever directed the removal.

Pitarresi also criticized William Rutland, president of the county’s blue-collar union, who summoned state investigators to the scene. Pitarresi said if Rutland hadn’t done so, an internal report could have been completed “in a day.”

“Asbestos is not a county matter,” Rutland said Wednesday, “The improper removal of asbestos is a violation of state and federal law.”

Glatz told reporters before the start of Tuesday’s Legislature meeting that the state Labor Department’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau had instructed the county not to say much publicly about the case because the state investigation remains open.

Shortly before 11 p.m., though, near the close of a 4-and-a-half-hour meeting, Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, asked for a briefing on the asbestos issue, which was offered in open session.

Glatz and Pitarresi didn’t name names of those involved, but Glatz vowed “to find out who did what and hold them accountable.”

Rutland charged that welfare recipients, required to work in exchange for their benefits, were sent to the basement of the 84-year-old building that houses the headquarters of the Health and Mental Health departments on the Mount View campus in Lockport. They apparently removed cancer-causing asbestos and placed it in a dumpster while being provided no protective gear.

Rutland also asserted that the asbestos might have posed a hazard to county employees, since it was taken past the time clock on the way out. “I have members who might have been exposed to a life-threatening disease,” Rutland said.

Pitarresi, whose job includes employee safety issues, said the work started May 22, and not until May 28 did Rutland or anyone else call her about it. “He waited until everything was complete before he raised a concern about safety,” Pitarresi told the Legislature.

Rutland said he was not told of the situation until May 28 by one of his union members. “Am I furious at my members for not telling me sooner? You’re damn right I am,” Rutland said.

Pitarresi said every test taken since May 28, when she was first informed of the matter, was negative for asbestos fibers in the air. A piece of asbestos pipe wrap was found in one of the dumpsters outside the building, although it may have been picked up off the basement floor, not removed from a pipe.

Glatz said when duct tape was seen on one of the pipes, sheriff’s office investigators were called in to check the tape for fingerprints to make sure it wasn’t an attempt at a coverup. He said the duct tape was found to be very old, not recent, and no prints could be recovered.

Rutland said, “The sheriff’s department shouldn’t have been in that work space. Now a sheriff’s investigator might have been exposed to asbestos fibers.”

Glatz said, “We want to know who moved it, who disturbed it and at whose direction.” Pitarresi said the state investigators have yet to interview any of the welfare workers, but they intend to do so.

Glatz said no one interviewed so far has admitted taking asbestos to the dumpster, which remains behind the Shaw Building. The county will have to hire an asbestos contractor to haul the dumpster away after Rutland summoned the Labor and Environmental Conservation departments. Otherwise, it would have gone to Modern Disposal in Lewiston with one of the other dumpsters. Two further dumpsters were filled with old metal objects that were recycled, Glatz confirmed.

Pitarresi said, “This was not an asbestos abatement project. It was a ‘moving some old furniture’ project.”

She accused Rutland of having his own agenda, telling lawmakers, “On this matter, there seems to be some issue going on, and it’s unfortunate.”

Rutland responded, “My ax to grind against the county is their incompetent administration of county employees. It’s a longstanding ax to grind.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com