About a year ago, Northampton County Controller Steve Barron was sending emails to the EPA's Harry Boyer, asking him to do something about "the problems we've had ongoing with asbestos and lead paint abatement." Barron, in turn, was being fed information by Gracedale union official and safety committee member Ted Harris.
The EPA finally came in September, although the County has yet to receive a report. But two weeks ago, Ted Harris stood County Council, flatly declaring that "no one is doing anything" about asbestos and lead paint at the Courthouse. While standing there, basically calling his boss a murderer, Harris went on to claim he could fill Courtroom 1 with people who have complaints, but was advising them all to remain silent for fear of retaliation.
County Executive John Stoffa has responded to Barron and Harris with a written report to Council, in which he details the steps he's taken to test for and remediate asbestos throughout the County buildings. He also includes a list of the disbursements made by the County during 2011.
I spoke to Stoffa and his Director of Administration, Tom Harp, about the asbestos problem that is supposedly being ignored, and this is what I've learned.
1) Many of the complaints are from 8, 10 or even 15 years ago. - Harris and his Committee complain about doors at Gracedale that were cut in half, even though there was asbestos in them. What he fails to point out is that this occurred at least 8, and possibly as long as 15 years ago. The same is true of ACM material left behind a wall at Gracedale. That was 15 years ago. "Anybody who has a home built more than 30 years ago will have asbestos," noted Stoffa. "This place was built in 1861."
2) Over the past four years, Stoffa has spent $800,000 in taxpayer money for asbestos and lead paint testing and remediation. Last year alone, the County spent $432,800. "And we don't take it seriously?" asks Stoffa. "I don't know how much more we can do." There are 144 separate invoices. "There was a lot of work over the last year," notes Harp. "We're trying to do things the right way. Whatever happened 10 or 15 years ago, we're trying to do the right thing."
3) It will cost at least $200,000 to remediate the law library. The law library was remediated during Courthouse renovations started by Executive Glenn Reibman, but dust began appearing on the books. According to Harp, the County is investigating how that could have occurred.
4) The County has cooperated fully with the EPA. During his re-election campaign, Controller Steve Barron claimed that the County threw up a few roadblocks to slow down the EPA. That's not true, according to Tom Harp. He indicates that when the EPA came and asked to interview different people, he had to make sure they had that right, and asked for a legal opinion. As soon as that question was researched, the EPA was provided unfettered access.
5) There is no asbestos contamination in the DA's storage area.
6) It is no longer clear whether the County will be fined. Despite several requests, the County has received no report from the EPA. Ironically, their lab results might have been contaminated. "We are trying to do whatever they thought we should be doing," notes Stoffa.
7) No retaliatory action has been taken or planned against any County employee, including Harris. When he appeared before Council, Harris basically accused Stoffa of criminal negligence. Although Stoffa is concerned that Harris' accusation creates undue anxiety among County workers, he plans no disciplinary action against Harris or anyone else.
8) Training is underway. The County provides asbestos awareness training to O&M and custodial workers. It started in 2010 and continued in 2011.
9) Medical surveillance is under review. Stoffa is undecided whether the County should pay for "medical surveillance." He notes that at Penn State, that is afforded only to workers who actually do asbestos abatement.
"To say that we have been nonresponsive, as Mr. Barron and certain workers allege, lacks credibility," concludes Stoffa.