LOCKPORT –No disciplinary action was taken after Niagara County officials wrapped up their internal investigation of how welfare workers were potentially exposed to asbestos while cleaning out a basement crawl space in a county office building, a union leader said.
“Not one of my members was disciplined for anything having to do with the Shaw Building or asbestos,” said Susan Young, president of the county’s unit of the Civil Service Employees Association.
“We cannot identify anyone who told anyone to remove asbestos or anyone who knew they were removing asbestos,” said Jennifer R. Pitarresi, county director of risk and insurance services.
Her union represented the Social Services Department crew leaders who directed the late May clean-out of the basement of the Shaw Building, the 84-year-old Town of Lockport headquarters of the county Health and Mental Health departments.
A floor tile and a piece of pipe insulation, both apparently containing asbestos, ended up in a dumpster. William C. Rutland, president of the county’s unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, reported the incident to state and federal agencies as a possible health risk to county employees and to the welfare clients, who wore no protective gear. That led to a cleanup effort that cost the county nearly $100,000, including staff time, according to Pitarresi.
Pitarresi said she believes that what happened was that welfare workers sweeping the dirt floor and putting the sweepings in a bucket for disposal unearthed some old asbestos on the floor. County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said that a large stack of old floor tiles, presumably containing asbestos because of the age of the building, was left intact by the workers.
The state Labor Department’s Bureau of Public Employee Safety and Health, or PESH, cited the county for eight violations, which it deemed serious but the county did not. In order to resolve the matter, the county ordered the removal of all asbestos in the Shaw crawl space, a job that was completed last week.
“What was removed didn’t have to be removed,” Pitarresi said. “That was our abundance of caution.”
She said that 95 percent of the asbestos in the Shaw crawl space was intact, not “friable,” meaning that no fibers were loose and able to be breathed in.
“I didn’t force them to abate anything,” said Rutland, refusing to take the blame for the cost of the cleanup. “I’m tired of being criticized for not working with the county.”
Glatz said the county has begun an assessment of asbestos in all county buildings old enough to possibly contain the cancer-causing fire retardant.
“Just because there’s asbestos somewhere doesn’t mean it’s a violation,” Glatz said, adding, “It’s nonfriable. You can carry that around, and there’s no violation or harm.”
Rutland said he summoned PESH to the Trott Access Center in Niagara Falls last week after workers reported what seemed to be exposed asbestos on a dirt floor in the basement.
Young was present for part of the Trott inspection. She said she saw some asbestos in a crawl space next to a maintenance room and some more under a staircase in the former high school.
“It’s not a spot that’s accessible to anyone,” Young said.
Rutland said he called PESH after the county didn’t take action. “I waited four weeks, and they did nothing,” he said. PESH did not respond to requests for comment Friday.