ALBANY – A week after declaring its Buffalo regional headquarters building safe, the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation raised speculation among staff at the building that a move to a new location might be on the horizon.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos drove to Buffalo Monday to talk with staff members about the building at 270 Michigan Ave. State procurement rules restricted how much information he could provide, but workers at the downtown building said Seggos left the clear impression that he is considering the relocation of the DEC and its 125 Buffalo workers, according to two state government employees who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The apparent decision to re-evaluate the state’s lease renewal plans comes after The Buffalo News last week reported that a union representing white-collar workers at the agency filed a formal grievance with the state for renewing a lease for a building they say has seen a half-dozen staffers there be diagnosed with brain cancer over the years.
Four weeks ago, employees were informed by DEC officials that the lease was being renewed, possibly for another 10 years.
DEC officials on Monday afternoon declined to say if the agency might move from the building, which they say poses no health risks to its office occupants.
Instead, the agency provided a written comment from Seggos saying the DEC is “continuing to evaluate all options with regard to our future in the City of Buffalo.’’ Last week, officials said a lease extension was in the works that would include ventilation construction on the building to try to allay some worker concerns.
“Protecting the health and safety of our employees is my top priority. We act immediately to investigate and determine a course of action when the health of our people is at stake," Seggos said Monday.
He reiterated that indoor air and radiological data – done in the past by the agency and the state health department – “have confirmed that this building does not present a health risk.” Last week, Seggos called those tests “exhaustive” on the building, which is owned by Ellicott Development Co.
William Paladino, who owns the building along with his father, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, last week said private tests were also conducted and found no health issues with the building. The two men own Ellicott Development Co. He did not return a call seeking comment this week after Seggos’ trip to Buffalo.
Out of what state officials called an “abundance of caution," the building was set to undergo what William Paladino said would be more than $100,000 worth of work to install a sublevel ventilation system; Seggos last week said the work was to be done to show that “without a doubt that indoor environmental quality is not a concern and our employees are protected."
The DEC Buffalo office, which the state has leased since 1991, is one of eight regional offices and home to engineers, biologists, lawyers, forest rangers, experts on everything from wildlife to hazardous materials, researchers, clerical staff and administrators, including the regional director in charge of the department’s work in six Western New York counties. The state spends $810,862 a year in rent for the building.
The Public Employees Federation, the second-largest union of state workers, last month filed a grievance claiming that the state’s February decision to renew the lease “ignores” a 2013 state health department study that said the incidents of brain cancer among DEC staffers in the building was a “statistically significant higher than expected” number compared to the general population.
The union did not comment after the trip to the building by the DEC commissioner on Monday.
The health department study did not find a direct link between the incidents of cancer among DEC workers and the building itself. The building was home for decades to the Buffalo Envelope Co., and the 2013 DOH study looked at a number of shipments of potentially hazardous materials to the building when that company was housed there.
Five DEC staffers assigned to the building died from brain cancer in the past couple decades, the 2013 study said. A sixth employee last year was diagnosed with brain cancer.