Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact

Next story: Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

What's Black & Blue and All Covered Up?

Sick cops get brush off from the city

When some police officers were talking among themselves at Buffalo’s D District last year, conversation turned to the number of people getting sick at work. Soon, they started ticking off names of co-workers who’d become ill with things ranging from bronchitis to cancer. They quickly arrived at more than a dozen names—roughly 10 percent of the people who worked there.

It seemed like a lot of people. So many, in fact, that a few of the officers began to suspect that it might have something to do with their place of work. For years, the D, or Delta, District was housed in a single-story brick building at 669 Hertel Avenue, just west of Elmwood. Might those discolored ceiling tiles be a telltale sign of something more sinister than condensation or a leaky roof? What about that water in the basement that at times could reach a depth of a few feet?

On January 14, an anonymous officer filed a complaint through the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau (PESH) of the New York State Department of Labor, asking the agency to look into possible problems at the worksite. (The complaint forms include a section for the filer to request that his or her identity be withheld from his or her employer, due to the fact that reprisal from the boss is a real threat whistleblowers face.)

In response, the City of Buffalo contacted Leader Professional Services, Inc., a company the city keeps on retainer to perform environmental assessments. On January 29, David Hornung in the city’s Division of Public Works spoke on the phone with Keith Keller of Leader, and they ironed out the scope of the testing—which locations in the building were to be tested, and what they would be testing for.

On February 1, Leader submitted its proposal/contract. On February 9, Keller arrived at the station and did a walk-through with Hornung to identify sampling locations. He then began the testing, but not before noting that another contractor, Indoor Air Pro, was there also. Indoor Air Pro had been cleaning out the air ducts—before the air quality samples were taken.

“What happened was we filed a complaint with the city about the condition of the building,” says Lt. Sean O’Brien, who chairs the Health and Safety Committee of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. “And what they immediately did was hire Indoor Air Professionals to go out and clean the ducts. Indoor Air are the ones who told them: ‘You’ve got a problem here with mold.’ The air vents were totally clogged.”

On Friday, February 12, based on preliminary findings, officers at D District were told they were being moved out of the building. “The main issues were mold in the walls and ceiling,”O’Brien says. “They said the testing would take two to four weeks. Then I was told by city attorney Diane O’Gorman that all information pertaining to D District on the subject of mold would not be subject to Freedom of Information legislation because it’s a pending investigation.”

Independent (and unauthorized) testing

Because there’s no great trust between the police union and the Brown administration, the PBA contacted Great Lakes Environmental & Safety Consultants, Inc., and scheduled a study of their own to take place in the building at 11am on February 24. The PBA sent a letter to interim police commissioner Daniel Derenda notifying him of this appointment, and received a two-line fax back on the same day from the city’s interim corporation counsel, David Rodriguez. It read: “The City is still awaiting final reports on tests conducted at the above listed sight. We are not in a position to allow access to the subject premises in light of our ongoing investigation and testing. Please submit all future requests for access to this office.”

On February 24, the PBA sent an official notice to the mayor, copying Rodriguez, Derenda, and the New York State Department of Labor, demanding full reports on the testing being done at 669 Hertel, citing OSHA rules. They also commenced court action to fight the city’s denial of access to the facility.

In the meantime, D District officers were moved to a temporary facility in University Heights, three miles across town.

But, perhaps unbeknownst to City Hall, some of the displaced cops returned to the Hertel Avenue building to perform some environmental testing of their own. An Artvoice source says that some officers went in and collected samples directly from places where the mold was most obvious, and sent the samples off to labs in Canada, Florida, and Texas. The results came back in 48 to 72 hours, and the samples tested at all three labs came back indicating lots and lots of black mold.

The tests were done without permission, and those involved are concerned about retaliation from their superiors. Since then, the city has changed the locks on the doors at the precinct and deactivated the swipe cards officers use to get in.

The city says the building is safe

Last Friday, March 12, a press conference was called in City Hall to announce the “final air quality report on D District.” In essence, the two-page synopsis said there was mold—including Stachybotrys or “black mold,” which can cause severe health problems—but that there was nothing to worry about. City officials said that the D District would be moved over to 205 Esser in Riverside, into space rented from the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo for $4,500 a month in All Saints Roman Catholic Church Society. The cops will share space with the Boys & Girls Club and other parish organizations.

The city has budgeted $300,000 for testing and remediation of the D District building. The rent to the diocese is extra.

Although the full study wasn’t immediately released to the media, mayoral spokesman Peter Cutler indicated that a copy had been sent to the PBA. Rodriguez said that the law department was deciding whether or not the information could be released to the media, pursuant to FOIL. Perhaps by Monday, reporters were told, they would have an answer to that. Mayor Byron Brown also said the PBA was welcome to conduct their own environmental tests, and the following Monday they city made the full study public.

At the press conference I asked if the air vents had been cleaned prior to testing. At first I was told no. But by the time I got back to the office, an email had arrived from Cutler indicating that they were, but that “it wouldn’t make any difference because (1) the air is drawn into the building, not out; and (2) the subsequent testing by Leader indicated that there was no evidence of harmful airborne materials from the areas they tested.” I was told to call Keith Keller at Leader if I had further questions.

I did. Keller did not explain why the direction the air is drawn through the filters has any bearing on the question of whether cleaning the ducts and replacing the filters might have affected the results of an air quality test. But he helped fill in some blanks in the timeline. He also pointed me toward Indoor Air Pro, the company that cleaned out the vents. When I called out to their Lancaster office, CEO David Gordon told me that the city told him not to talk to the press. “We’ve been specifically asked not to talk to the media,” he said. He gave me the name and phone number of Joe Schollard, Principal Chief Stationary Engineer with the city, who would be handling all such inquiries.

I called Schollard and left a message, asking him to call me regarding the D District. He didn’t call back, but when I called back the next day, he had a ready response to my inquiry. “Actually, they’ve put it with the law department now. It’s with David Rodriguez. So you have to talk to him,” he said.

Rodriguez has not returned phone calls.

On Wednesday morning, I spoke to North District Councilman Joe Golombek, who was instrumental in lining up the lease for the precinct at All Saints. I told him what I’d learned, and pointed out that the police are rightfully ticked off that this whole thing has been handled in a clandestine way. Golombek called back and explained that he was able to reach Cutler, and that the law department was preparing to send papers over to the PBA formalizing an agreement to allow them their own independent testing of the property.

There is some reason to think that all of the tests run so far may ultimately be inconclusive. According to a client service representative at Galson Laboratories, where Leader sent some of the D District air samples for testing, it’s not a good idea to clean the air ducts before you test: “I wouldn’t touch a thing, because you want to get a representation of the way conditions were before anything was done,” a representative told me. “In my opinion, if you want to get a snapshot of what’s occurring within an office building, just sample the way it is.”

As a result of cleaning out the air vents and changing the air filters before the air quailty tests were performed, the city may have ruined any chance of determining precisely what the officers had been exposed to.

Sadly we should also note the passing of Police Officer David Sadlocha, on Tuesday, March 16. Sadlocha, 53 years old, had been a longtime cop at D District who’d been battling cancer in recent years. He went into the hospital last week, developed pneumonia, and died.

blog comments powered by Disqus