Politics & Government

State official fired after improper asbestos cleanup

The state has fired the supervisor of an inmate work crew that used shoddy and potentially dangerous work practices in cleaning up asbestos, records show.

The Department of Corrections earlier paid a more than $70,000 fine and closed down its asbestos abatement program.

The agency deployed a crew of about eight male inmates from Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock in June 2013 to remove and dispose of 4,000 square feet of old vinyl floor tiles and adhesive in a dining area of the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy.

In charge was Gary L. Baldwin, the head of the asbestos program. Baldwin is a 19-year veteran of the agency with 15 years as a certified asbestos supervisor and a clean record of performance evaluations.

At times, the inmates didn’t wear proper protective equipment or soak the dry material in water to keep dust out of the air. The crew continued working even after realizing the air-circulation system couldn’t be turned off, and it missed a spot while putting up a barrier around the dining area.

“Your actions potentially placed offenders, employees, and yourself at risk of life threatening diseases and death, as well as placed the agency at an enormous risk of future liability,” Danielle Armbruster, assistant director of DOC’s Correctional Industries, wrote in a letter dismissing Baldwin.

The agency provided the April 15 letter in response to a records request.

Baldwin is appealing the decision, the agency said. Attempts to reach him last week were unsuccessful.

When questioned by investigators, he alternately described what was done as common practice and blamed inmates for failing to follow procedures they had been taught.

“It’s hard to enforce. You can talk to them until you’re blue,” Baldwin told investigators, according to a transcript in the records. He said his only recourse was to remove crew members from the job by issuing infractions — reducing his crew — or to dock their pay so “instead of working for $3.35/hr you’re going to work for $2.00/hr for the next thirty days.”

Video revealed many of the problems. Video frames in the records show Baldwin watching as inmates go in and out of the work area shirtless and without protective equipment.

“You stated that you should have used ‘common sense’ and have realized that you were in an institution with recording cameras,” Armbruster wrote to Baldwin. “This demonstrates that you were willing to be untruthful until you learned that there was evidence of your wrongdoing on tape.”

Baldwin did acknowledge he should have stopped the project after the prison was unable to turn off the air system, but said he had promised prison officials he would get the job done before new tile was due to be installed, and didn’t believe contamination was likely. He also said he told inmates to stop stripping off their gear before leaving the room.

In April telephone interviews, inmates blamed Baldwin for rushing the job.

“He was in a big hurry, pushing us to do everything,” crew member Paul White said. When “we told them, ‘Hey, we can’t do it this way,’ that’s when we were threatened with, ‘Hey, you guys could be replaced.’ ”

Crew member Joseph Sullivan said the inmates were “stressed out over ‘Were we exposed?’ and ‘What’s this going to do to us?’ ”

Asbestos can cause breathing problems and cancer. It often takes multiple exposures over time to cause illness.

The departments of Labor and Industries and Corrections differed on whether inmates were actually exposed to asbestos. They reached a settlement this year for Corrections to do more training, buy more equipment and pay half of the original $141,000 penalty ordered by L&I.

Penalties go into a fund that benefits injured workers and family members of people who died on the job.

Corrections ended its practice of deploying inmate crews for asbestos cleanup at the end of last year, saying it canceled the program over general concern about asbestos exposure and not the findings of the investigation.

Expecting to be out of a job after the program shut down, Baldwin told investigators he was worried about how the investigation would affect his job prospects.

“I am sorry that my lack of attention caused us to meet like this. Thirty-one years of doing environmental work and I have never had a citation,” he said. “This is a hell of a way to go out.”