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State says Niagara County violated asbestos rules in Courthouse rug job

LOCKPORT – The state Labor Department found that Niagara County committed eight “serious violations” pertaining to the handling of asbestos in a carpet project in the County Clerk’s Office in January.

The report by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Public Employee Safety and Health said floor tiles containing about asbestos were removed without taking measures to protect the workers and welfare clients who did the job in the courthouse in Lockport. Employees were not informed of the project.

An old carpet was replaced Jan. 26-28 in the office of Clerk Joseph A. Jastrzemski. The carpet had been glued to the floor tile underneath, so workers removed both and put them in a dumpster before installing the new carpet.

The tiles measured 9 inches square, a size that usually contains asbestos, a fire-retardant material whose fibers have been shown to cause cancer.

William Rutland, president of the county’s unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, filed a complaint with PESH Feb. 8, after the project was done. The tiles were 1.09 percent to 1.13 percent asbestos; no asbestos was found in the glue and no asbestos was in the air.

County workers were trained in asbestos recognition last year, after Rutland blew the whistle on the unprotected removal of asbestos from a basement crawl space in the Shaw Building.

However, PESH reported that workers weren’t trained about finding asbestos-containing tile under carpeting.

Jennifer R. Pitarresi, the county’s risk and insurance director, issued a statement blaming the workers on the carpet job for failing to recognize potential asbestos-containing materials.

Rutland said the county gave oral reprimands to 10 members of his union, which he called “ridiculous.” He said a grievance has been filed.

Pitarresi said, “We have undertaken surveys of all crawl spaces, boiler rooms and other work spaces in buildings that potentially contain asbestos. Mr. Rutland’s interpretation of the PESH order is incorrect. .”

Pitarresi added that the county has instituted a new policy requiring asbestos testing before any construction or demolition on county property.