|Bill Rutland filed a grievance with the county for exposing his men to hazardous conditions.
The old Niagara County Sanatorium on Upper Mountain Road in Lockport is about as spooky a place as any low budget horror film director could ask for.
Built in 1916 in the Gothic style on a wooded hillside, the creepy old edifice has seen more than its share of human suffering.
Nowadays it’s known as the Shaw Building, after William Shaw, the county commissioner who pushed for its’ construction. Today it serves as headquarters for the county Health Department.
The building itself, however, is anything but healthy.
About a year ago, county workers assigned to maintenance of the building were asked to help with the installation of a metal sink on the first floor of the building, for use by the county Dept. of Mental Health.
The workers were directed to drill a hole in the floor and connect the pipes to those in the building’s basement.
They balked, however, when they saw what the basement contained; a century’s worth of debris, much of which consisted of asbestos insulation that had once been wrapped around the plumbing but had now decayed and deteriorated. There was a lot of it, and dust filled the air in the dank basement and crawl space to the extent that breathing was difficult.
Bill Rutland, president of ASFCME Local 132, which represents about 150 blue collar county workers including those at the Shaw Building, sat down with County Superintendent of Buildings Tom Williams about the matter, and both men agreed that the dangerous basement could be avoided by rerouting the sink pipe through a first floor wall and connecting to an already existing water main there.
And that’s where things stood until May.
County officials knew that the basement of the old sanatorium contained dangerous amounts of asbestos, a known cancer causing agent that is both difficult and expensive to remove. Exposure to airborne asbestos created by the remediation process itself has been linked to lung cancer and Mesothelioma, as well as many other respiratory problems.
Workers involved in asbestos remediation routinely wear full hazmat gear, “space suits” equipped with respirators and face shields, and whole buildings undergoing asbestos cleanup are often placed under a protective tent so as not to endanger the general public.
But last month, someone in the county had a bright idea. Why not round up a bunch of welfare recipients, send them down into the creepy and poisonous basement, and without hazmat suits, respirators or even gloves or the surgical masks county workers wear when blowing leaves, make them clean out the asbestos?
According to sources familiar with the basement job, about 20 welfare recipients who normally do painting, lawn mowing, snow shoveling and other odd jobs for the county in return for their welfare benefits, were sent into the basement for five full days over the course of the two weeks prior to Memorial Day weekend.
They removed four dumpsters full of pipe, insulation and other toxic trash that had accumulated there over the past century, under the most primitive conditions imaginable.
“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 dust was thick in the air, and became worse as workers began moving items out for disposal, he added.
When Rutland became aware that the welfare workers were doing the dangerous work, he went and personally inspected the dumpsters, still sitting open in the parking lot of the Shaw Building. He immediately contacted the state Department of Labor and filed a formal complaint on behalf of his unionized workers.
The time clock those workers use is located on the wall adjacent to the doorway leading into the basement. Once the welfare workers began throwing up dust simply by moving around in the basement, anyone near the door was unwittingly exposed to the hazard as well.
“I felt my members were exposed to the asbestos,” Rutland told the Niagara Falls Reporter. “When you disturb it, it is in the air and the time clock is right next to where the welfare workers were hauling out the asbestos and other debris.“
Rutland said the welfare workers themselves are at the highest risk.
“This is very serious,” he said. “It can’t be known whether the welfare workers will contract the diseases associated with asbestos. It will require a lifetime of monitoring.”
The state Department of Labor sent their Senior Industrial Hygienist, Ann Marie Pfohl, to inspect the dumpsters and the site. A bulk test was made of the dumpster’s contents and came back positive for asbestos.
Rutland immediately filed a grievance with the county.
The welfare workers, essentially slave laborers put in harm’s way by uncaring county officials, 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.
Ryan 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 job was nearly completed, the job was shut down immediately.
As Rutland said, the situation is very serious, and an ongoing investigation into the matter by the state Dept. Of Labor is continuing.
Someone in county government, with full knowledge of the risks involved, sent 20 untrained and unprotected human beings into a potentially life threatening situation, the full ramifications of which won’t be known for decades.
It was madness, something the old county sanatorium has seen much of over the past 100 years. And, for the 20 people whose lives may have been irrevocably altered by the decision, justice must be served.