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Shaw Building clear of asbestos, but probe remains unfinished

LOCKPORT – A Niagara County government building, where asbestos was apparently removed from a basement room by welfare workers without any protective gear, has been given the “all clear” by the state, Niagara County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz told employees in a memo Friday.

But Glatz said in an interview that the county has yet to fix responsibility for the incident, and plans to conduct its own interviews of employees connected with the incident next week.

He said that even though some asbestos was found in a dumpster, four or five more old floor tiles from the 84-year-old Shaw Building, which probably contain asbestos, were left behind, raising questions in his mind about how and why the asbestos that was removed made it to the dumpster.

So far, no one has admitted to placing the asbestos in that dumpster, temporarily parked behind the Shaw Building. The building is the headquarters of the Health and Mental Health departments, located on the county’s Mount View campus off Upper Mountain Road in Lockport.

Inspectors from the Public Employment Health and Safety division of the state Labor Department have interviewed those workers for their own report, but Glatz said the agency has told the county it won’t release the report without a Freedom of Information request from the county, and the results probably will be redacted to black out the names of the witnesses.

Thus, Glatz said he and Jennifer R. Pitarresi, the county’s risk and insurance director, will do their own interviews, while Public Employment Health and Safety agents will move on to question the welfare workers next week.

“Absolutely, we’re going to hold somebody accountable,” Glatz said, repeating a pledge he made at the June 16 County Legislature meeting. “There’s a lot of money we’re incurring here, and if somebody put it there intentionally, it’s criminal.”

He said the county may spend $40,000 to $50,000 on the cleanup. It hired 56 Services of Buffalo as an asbestos consultant and Mark Cerrone Inc. of Niagara Falls to safely empty and remove the dumpster, a job that is expected to be completed Monday.

The county still needs to take bids for a contractor to abate asbestos left in the Shaw Building basement, where the crew of welfare recipients, carrying out a federally-mandated work requirement in exchange for their benefits, was assigned to throw things out from May 22 through 28. Four dumpsters were filled up.

William Rutland, president of the county’s blue-collar union, said he learned May 29 that there was asbestos in one of the dumpsters, and he said he photographed it and sent the photos to Pitarresi.

Contrary to Glatz’s statements that there was probably only one broken floor tile and one piece of pipe wrap containing asbestos in the dumpster, Rutland asserted Friday that he saw three different kinds of asbestos in the dumpster. He reported this to the Labor Department, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Pitarresi said the county has yet to receive reports from state agencies about the exact amount of asbestos in the dumpster.

Glatz told employees that the Labor Department has concluded that there is “no reason for concern about employee or public access” to the building. A Buffalo News email to the Labor Department asking for confirmation produced no reply.

Glatz’s memo to workers said that Thursday, Darren Mrak, regional supervising safety and health inspector for the Labor Department, told Pitarresi “that June 11 re-testing confirmed initial testing conducted May 29 which showed that no airborne asbestos fibers were present in the public and employee areas tested.”

Glatz wrote that all air tests at the site have been negative for asbestos, as have “wipe tests” of the wall, floors and doors by 56 Services and five state agency vacuum dust tests in the building’s hallways, except for what Daryl Odhner, a state industrial hygienist, called a “‘limited area of contamination’ just outside the basement door threshold.” Glatz added, “Mr. Odhner said even where surface testing was positive, airborne tests were all negative.”

Glatz said the Labor Department concluded that a white substance reported by Rutland on the floor was “an instant spill absorber,” not asbestos.