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Botched asbestos job revives call for new law County legislators seek worker-training measure

The first asbestos-removal project in the Rath County Office Building went from bad to worse in short order.

After only days on the job, the contractor's asbestos handlers on March 2 allowed water to pour from the building's 14th floor to the 13th, so the Parks Department below had to relocate for a day.

Two weeks later, agents for the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services found seven of the 11 workers on the asbestos job were undocumented aliens. The contractor, Superior Abatement of Fairfield, N.J., had been a defendant in federal and state courts and cited in the past, including for work performed in Buffalo.

Some county lawmakers attribute the episode to a zeal to pick the lowest bidder no matter its history. And a few lawmakers say it justifies the need for a worker-training law like the one business officials railed against just weeks ago and which County Executive Joel A. Giambra vetoed.

Its main proponent in the Legislature, Buffalo Democrat Timothy M. Kennedy, will convene a session of his Economic Development Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday to start drafting a new version. He said he has invited the Associated Builders and Contractors, which campaigned against the requirement, saying it was poorly written, unfairly favored union contractors and excluded many firms from bidding on county government projects.

If the workers on the asbestos-removal project had been asked to show proof they had completed a state apprentice program, as his law would have required, Kennedy said, then county officials could have excluded them from the job as unqualified.

At the same time, however, county officials are no longer sure the workers -- the undocumented aliens anyway -- were certified as asbestos handlers because they were not U.S. citizens. Those workers could have been thrown off the job if unable to prove they had asbestos training, regardless of whether Kennedy's apprentice-training law was in effect.

A Superior Abatement principal, Nicholas Petrovski, said he believes the workers completed their training as asbestos handlers but was not sure how they did so if not cleared to work in the United States.

"That's a question I have, too," Petrovski told The Buffalo News, also saying he's now talking with public works officials about how to complete the project.

Giambra halted all work March 15, saying he would not tolerate a contractor hiring illegal aliens. His public works officials are devising a way to finish the project by September.

Superior Abatement offered to do the job for $361,000, with the next lowest bidder coming in at $398,000. The project immediately was scrutinized by organized labor because Superior was not using unionized workers and because the few certified asbestos handlers remaining on the county payroll after the layoffs of 2005 would not be used.

Superior Abatement had been a defendant in federal and state courts after some of its other projects. In 1996, one of its workers on a job at Buffalo's Roswell Park Cancer Institute reported to state authorities that some asbestos had not been removed before new insulation was installed and that asbestos had been left atop a basement storage tank.

The worker, Mark J. McNaughton, was soon fired by Superior Abatement, but the National Labor Relations Board ordered him reinstated.

In the Rath Building, hoses started to leak overnight March 2 and by morning puddles had formed on the floor below, said Gerard Sentz, a public works official. Superior Abatement was told to clean all surfaces, dry out carpeting and take air samples. Two of the five samples showed the presence of asbestos fibers but were well below maximum-allowed levels, Sentz said.

Petrovski said he is talking with county officials and Local 210 of the Laborers International Union of North America because he's willing to use the union's workers in finishing the county contract. Local 210 explained to county lawmakers this week how it believes the job had been botched, turning up the heat on Superior Abatement.

"That's the only way I am going to be able to go back on the job and satisfy the owner," Petrovski said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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