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EPA test results ease fears about asbestos

Asbestos levels inside Kensington Heights exceed federal standards, but air and soil tests conducted outside the vacant housing complex where an asbestos abatement project was allegedly botched have not detected any levels of the material that would imperil public safety, according to federal officials.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday that tests performed outside Kensington Heights on Fillmore Avenue found no detectable amounts of asbestos -- or levels so low that they would not pose any safety risks.

Some residents were worried that youth sports teams and others who use Glenny Park may have been exposed to cancer-causing materials in light of revelations by federal prosecutors that two local contractors played fast and loose with asbestos regulations.

The federal agency is working with the state Labor Department on a joint investigation, EPA spokeswoman Jennifer May said.

"We don't normally comment on pending cases, but we wanted to let the public know what was going on," May told The Buffalo News. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. announced that a state inspector and two City of Buffalo inspectors were among nine individuals and two companies indicted on felony charges related to the abatement project at the East Side site.

The 23-count federal indictment also charges six of the contractors' employees with improperly removing and disposing of asbestos.

The president of a youth football group that serves 200 youngsters said he has yet to see the test results.

"But it sounds like good news," said Derrick L. Turner Sr. of the Buffalo Ravens. "My number one concern is to make sure these kids are safe."

The Common Council member who represents the neighborhood expressed relief that environmental tests did not detect any unsafe conditions outside a complex that is near three schools, a hospital and a park.

"I'm glad the EPA has been able to put fears to rest," said Masten representative Demone A. Smith. "The community can move forward, and people can feel safe."

Tests were also performed inside the long-vacant housing complex, May said. Experts found that asbestos levels inside the buildings were at levels that were higher than EPA's standards, she said.

May said the asbestos levels found inside the complex do not pose a safety risk to people who are outside the buildings. But she stressed that unauthorized personnel should not enter the vacant towers.

She declined to elaborate on the specific violations inside the towers or to discuss possible enforcement action, noting that the investigation continues.

The 17-acre public housing project is comprised of six vacant towers and has been a symbol of decay for three decades. It is owned by the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and was targeted for demolition two years ago.

May said it is possible that additional tests will be conducted by the agency. She said the EPA became involved at the request of Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport.

The indictment contends that Johnson Contracting of Buffalo and two of its managers, President Ernest Johnson and Supervisor Rai Johnson, instructed workers to dump asbestos in holes that were cut in the floors of each building. They were also charged with failing to wet the asbestos during the stripping and removal processes, leaving the material in open, unsecured containers.

Investigators claim the actions occurred between July of 2009 and January of 2010.