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JUNE 9 - JUNE 17, 2015

Crime Scene Investigators Probing
What Actually Happened at Shaw Bldg.

By Mike Hudson

JUNE 9, 2015

The dumpster containing hazardous asbestos sits in the open, its tarp having blown off.
The door that led to the basement of horrors is right beside where the union workers have to punch in each day.

The Niagara County Sheriff’s Department Crime Scene Investigations Unit was on the scene at the Shaw building on Upper Mountain Road Monday morning, dusting for fingerprints and collecting evidence in what was likely the illegal removal of four dumpsters worth of asbestos contaminated material and an attempt to dispose of the hazardous waste.

Investigators from the state Department of Labor are conducting their own investigation, and county Social Services Director Anthony Restaino confirmed that his agency is working with the state’s Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau to get to the bottom of the matter.

Restaino said his agency provides welfare workers to a number of Niagara County not-for-profits and government agencies.

“We would know who the individuals are assigned to a given work site, but we would not necessarily know what they would be doing on any particular day,” he said.

The potentially deadly asbestos contamination existing in the basement of the building was well known to county officials and workers as long ago as 2002, sources confirmed yesterday.

A study done by the county at that time showed high levels of asbestos present, and warned that human activity in the area would create a risk of causing the toxic substance to become airborne in the form of dust.

When a person breathes air containing asbestos dust, they risk contracting a wide variety of potentially fatal diseases, including lung cancer, mesothelioma and emphysema.

“We’d heard for years that there was asbestos down there,” said Mike Weber, who worked for 16 years as a county carpenter.

“Everybody knew you weren’t supposed to go down there.”

Weber said he and another carpenter were called out a year ago to install a sink on the first floor. When they arrived at the century old building, which formerly served as the Niagara County Sanatorium, they reported to the county Superintendent of Buildings, Tom Williams, who told them to drill a hole in the floor and hook the pipe up to a main in the basement.

The men refused, and left after Williams again ordered them to put themselves in harm’s way, Weber said.

“We went back and talked to (Union President) Bill (Rutland) and it ended up we figured out a different way to put the sink in that didn’t require anyone going into the basement,” Weber said. “But Bill wasn’t letting anybody go down there.”

A year passed before Williams again got the idea to send people down into the contaminated basement. This time, rather than county workers with strong union backing, he chose unskilled welfare recipient, who do odd jobs for the county in exchange for food stamps and other benefits.

Around 20 of Niagara County’s poorest were forced to go into the basement and perform the cleanup, without being warned of the possibly deadly danger the task presented. The workers were unprotected not only by the lack of union representation, but by the absence of any safety equipment including gloves, boots, respirators or even surgical masks.

“We had no idea at all that we were working with hazardous materials,” said Ryan Mack, one of the basement workers. “And neither did our crew chief.”

Again, the county’s blue collar workers, in the form of union president Rutland, got involved. Because the welfare workers were using a door near to where union members punched in and out on a wall mounted time clock, the union workers were exposed to the same hazardous materials as the welfare recipients carried it out to the dumpsters in the parking lot.

Rutland filed a formal grievance with the county, charging that the work may have violated federal, state and local law, and demanding that the project be shut down immediately.

The task force of state and local agencies investigating this latest outrage leave little doubt that a crime has been committed here.

The reckless disregard shown toward the health and safety of some of our poorest, most vulnerable citizens by highly paid and allegedly professional county executives here is inexcusable.






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