A state investigator probed the asbestos situation at Niagara County’s Shaw Building on Upper Mountain Road and found eight violations of state environmental regulations in connection with a cleanup conducted by county workers and welfare recipients working in return for benefits in May 2015.
Ann Marie Pfohl, Senior Industrial Hygienist with the NY Public Employee Safety & Health Bureau, conducted the investigation following a complaint filed by AFSCME President Bill Rutland, who was concerned that union workers in the building might have been exposed to asbestos dust stirred up by the cleanup effort.
The three-story Shaw Building houses mental and public health clinics that are open to the general public, along with administrative offices that provide support for Health Department field workers. In early years, the building served as the County sanitarium.
As many as 20 Niagara County workers and welfare recipients were ordered into a dark and stuffy crawlspace underneath the nearly century old building to clean out old furniture, filing cabinets, toys, Christmas decorations, books, papers and other debris that included pieces of pipe wrapped with asbestos laden insulation.
The welfare workers were told to carry whatever was down there out and into the parking lot, where dumpsters had been set up.
The door to the cellar crawlspace had been padlocked since the early part of this century, when testing revealed the presence of asbestos.
Asbestos, in wide use for many years, has been linked to several different types of cancers, as well as other respiratory illnesses. Unionized county workers had previously refused orders to enter the dirt floored, subterranean chamber and perform work.
The welfare workers were not informed of the presence of asbestos, nor had the county posted warning signs of the hazard, as is required by law. Pohl’s report stated that workers had not been told that materials possibly contaminated with asbestos needed to be placed in plastic containers before being put into the dumpsters.
Seven of the violations actually had to do with asbestos, while the eighth was for an uncovered, live electrical panel box located in the crawlspace.
Since the inspection, the door has once again been locked, and along with other possible access points to the crawlspace, sealed with plastic. The required signs have been posted, and training seminars have been initiated to alert employees of the potential hazard.
While the state report lists the citations as serious, none of them came with penalties.
In a news release sent out by the County, Public Information Officer, Christian Peck called the eight violations “minor performance infractions.”
Several other agencies, including the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Crimes Division and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigations Division are probing the situation at the Shaw Building. The results of those investigations have not yet been made public.