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State investigation finds 8 ‘serious’ violations on removal of asbestos from Niagara County building

LOCKPORT – State investigators concluded last week that there were eight “serious” violations connected with the removal of asbestos from the basement of a Niagara County-owned building in late May, but county Risk and Insurance Director Jennifer R. Pitarresi said they weren’t really all that serious.

“It’s a category. They check a box,” Pitarresi said.

Pitarresi said the violations cited by the state Labor Department’s Bureau of Public Employee Safety and Health, or PESH, were deemed serious only because asbestos was involved. “PESH has basically two kinds of violations,” she said. “They are serious or nonserious. With respect to asbestos, I would gather you’re never going to get a ‘nonserious.’ ”

However, the union leader who made the original complaint about the removal of asbestos by welfare workers who weren’t using any protective gear asserted that the state report proves he was right all along.

William C. Rutland, president of the county’s unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said PESH concluded that every one of the eight violations “could cause serious injury or death. … That’s upsetting. That’s worth complaining about.”

And that’s what Rutland did May 28.

The violations included the discovery of an electrical junction box with no cover, and seven asbestos-related matters:

• Failure to determine that there was asbestos in the Shaw Building, the 84-year-old headquarters of the county Health and Mental Health departments.

• Failure to tell employees about the presence of asbestos.

• Two counts of failure to put up warning signs for workers, although the signs desired were worded differently in each count.

• Failure to provide asbestos awareness training to housekeeping and maintenance workers.

• Failure to put the removed asbestos in a proper container.

• Failure to remove the spilled asbestos as soon as possible.

Pitarresi blamed Rutland for the last one. “Bill Rutland called everyone and their brother, so we couldn’t touch anything,” she said.

“Every one of (the violations) could cause potential exposure,” Rutland said. “She can spin any way she wants.”

The asbestos was found on the floor and appeared to have formerly been wrapped around a pipe.

The PESH report said the workers were told to pick up everything on the floor and carry it to a garbage receptacle outside. The report does not name the person who gave the orders or who removed the asbestos.

Pitarresi said, “Neither our investigation nor PESH’s found anyone who carried asbestos from the room to the dumpster.” Rutland said the instructions must have come from a county crew leader.

The county’s internal investigation remains incomplete because four welfare workers have yet to be interviewed and one cannot be located, Pitarresi said

Depending on the violation, PESH gave the county until Aug. 24, Sept. 8 or Sept. 29 to comply with remedial orders or be fined $200 a day.