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JUNE 16 - JUNE 24, 2015

While Criminal Investigators Visit Lockport Over Asbestos Exposure at Shaw Bldg.

By Mike Hudson

JUNE 16, 2015

Asbestos wrapping around pipes.
Blue Collar workers Union President called foul on county and stopped the work.

The investigation into the illegal removal and attempted disposal of asbestos laden material from the basement of the county’s Shaw Building on Upper Mountain Road saw an investigator from the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Bureau of Environmental Crime and a special agent from the federal Environmental Protection Agency visit the site to collect evidence and interview witnesses last week, sources told the Niagara Falls Reporter.

The state and federal agents arrived on the heels of investigators from the Department of Labor and the Niagara County Sheriff’s Department’s Crime Scene Investigations unit, who collected samples of material removed from the basement of the building by a crew of welfare workfare laborers sent out by the county Department of Social Services.

County officials have known about the hazardous conditions in the basement of the Shaw Building, a 84 year old edifice that once served as the county sanatorium.

In 2002, monitoring uncovered toxic levels of asbestos, mostly from the crumbling insulation placed around the building’s plumbing in the days before the danger of asbestos was known.

The basement door was padlocked and the asbestos hazard was largely forgotten until last year when CSEA union employee, maintenance supervisor Thomas William, ordered two county laborers (ACSME union) to go down in the basement and hook up a sink he wanted installed on the first floor.

The men refused, and Bill Rutland, president of ASCME, the county’s blue collar workers union, became involved.

Rutland said he and Williams discussed the asbestos hazard at length.

Another way to hook up the sink was found that didn’t involve going into the basement and, again, the matter was forgotten.

Until May of this year.

Peter M. Constantakes, spokesman for the DEC, told the Buffalo News that the department is looking into whether the county violated the Environmental Conservation Law.

He said, “I’m told it’s too soon to say it’s a ‘criminal investigation.’ ”

Federal law provides strict guidelines on the responsibility of employers where asbestos exposure is concerned.

“Where there is exposure, employers are required to further protect workers by establishing regulated areas, controlling certain work practices and instituting engineering controls to reduce the airborne levels,” the department warns. “The employer is required to ensure exposure is reduced by using administrative controls and provide for the wearing of personal protective equipment. Medical monitoring of workers is also required when legal limits and exposure times are exceeded.”

Clearly, none of these protocols was followed by whomever ordered 20 welfare recipients into the stifling and dangerous, hot, fetid basement.

No respirators were employed, not even surgical masks.

“There were only a few lights, spaced about 50 feet apart, and unless you were right by them you couldn’t see anything in the dark,” said Ryan Mack, one of the cleanup workers. “Then the basement turned into a crawlspace and there wasn’t any light there at all.”

The workers were not issued boots, overalls or gloves for protection.

In the darkness and heat they went about the heavy lifting, breathing heavily as the asbestos laden dust potentially swirled around.

Rusty file cabinets, old typewriters, wood furniture, cast iron pipe, heavy windows that workers were ordered to smash in order to lighten the load - without protective glasses and toxic insulation were carried up the stairs and out to dumpsters waiting in the parking lot.

The welfare workers were pulled out of the basement following a phone call from David Mokhiber, who heads up the county’s workfare program, to the crew chief, who was with the workers.

Mack accidentally overheard the crew chief’s end of the conversation.

“He was shocked,” Mack said. “He was there with us. After he got off the phone I confronted him.”

Although the work was nearly completed, the job was shut down immediately.

It turned out that Rutland, the union president, had filed a grievance because the welfare workers were taking the hazardous waste out to the parking lot through a door adjacent to where the union workers’ time clock is located.

Two weeks passed before the county issued a statement.

Yesterday Niagara County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz issued a memorandum to county employees working at the Shaw building.

Glatz’s memorandum, reads in part:

“The New York State Department of Labor Public Employee Safety and Health Division (“PESH”), and its Asbestos Control Bureau (“ACB”) are investigating a complaint regarding the Shaw Building basement / crawl space. The County is working with PESH to address any and all concerns. In the meantime, the area in question remains locked with restricted access.

“Preliminary verbal reports from PESH of their testing results indicate no airborne asbestos fibers and particles in public and employee areas. Additional air testing has been conducted as recently as Thursday, June 11, 2015. The nature of the contents of dumpsters outside the building and their proper disposal is being tested and reviewed by the ACB and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. …We are awaiting the complete and final written report with further guidance and recommendations from PESH. As soon as we have formal results, we will provide further updates.

“It is important in matters such as this, that we focus on facts as they are known and documented, rather than unsubstantiated media reports or rumors, as we provide critical services to the public in this County location.

“Please cooperate with government investigators, if asked.”

Meanwhile a few questions:

Who removed the hinges from the padlocked basement door allowing the welfare workers to bypass the padlock?

Who gave the order to send 20 untrained and unprotected men down those stairs and into a potentially life threatening situation?

Did this individual know about the asbestos?

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, exposure to airborne asbestos for as little as 72 hours can result in fatal illness.

“There is no ‘safe’ level of asbestos exposure for any type of asbestos fiber. Asbestos exposures as short in duration as a few days have caused mesothelioma in humans,” the department warns. “Every occupational exposure to asbestos can cause injury of disease; every occupational exposure to asbestos contributes to the risk of getting an asbestos related disease.”

But while it is a possibility, some professional says the chances are good for the welfare workers who were exposed.

“The exposure is too brief to cause any significant damage,” said a leading lawyer in the field of asbestos exposure who spoke with the Reporter on the condition of anonymity.

“The practical result (of several days of exposure) that what would be an almost 1 in a million risk that someone might pick up for something that would be the basis for a well-reasoned fear or anxiety.”

The lawyer told the Reporter he would not be interested in handling the case of the workers, adding he did not believe their exposure warranted “any kind of health monitoring. It would be different if they were there for a full month.”

In a study by the Department of Community Medicine, Mount Sinai Medical Centre, New York, NY, USA. of 386 factory workers with short term exposure to amosite asbestos (median exposure six months) and long follow up (median 25 years) the results were that with “exposure for as little as a month was sufficient to produce radiological signs of parenchymal and pleural fibrosis, (2) no cumulative exposure threshold for parenchymal and pleural fibrosis was detectable, and (3) parenchymal and pleural progression were still detectable 20 years after the end of exposure.”

Meantime sources in county government hinted that the investigation may center on other aspects including the failure of some union workers to provide safety glasses to welfare workers who requested them including one worker who has only one eye.

One man was denied a mask, according to sources, because he allegedly had hepatitis and the union worker feared he might share it with another worker and spread disease.


Ryan Mack created an artistic interpretation of what the Shaw bldg basement looked like.






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