PATERSON, NJ – The Passaic County Sheriff’s Office is investigating Paterson’s use of an inmate work crew on a municipal office renovation project in which asbestos was found.

Sheriff Richard Berdnik was “surprised, disappointed and upset” when he learned that inmates whom his department provided to Paterson through the Sheriff’s Labor Assistance Program (SLAP) were assigned to work at offices at 133 Ellison Street where asbestos was being handled, said his spokesman, William Maer.

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“Under no circumstances would we have potentially exposed or would we have allowed any SLAP inmates to be assigned work around any potentially hazardous material,’’ said Maer.

Three departments of state government – health, labor and community affairs – already are conducting their own inquiries of Paterson’s handling of the asbestos.

Paterson Public Works Director Christopher Coke said 15 air samples taken at the site came back negative as did tests on dust at the location. The asbestos, he said, was contained in floor tiles that were removed from a second-floor office that was being renovated. Coke said tests of the tiles turned up low levels of the type of asbestos that normally does not break up into small air-borne fibers.

Several municipal employees were working at the site, in addition to the SLAP inmates, Coke said. “The inmates were not exposed to any greater danger than the DPW employees who worked there,’’ Coke said. “They did not conduct any work that would have resulted in the release of asbestos fibers.’’

The inmates primarily carried debris from the offices, Coke said.

The role of the SLAP inmates on the project was brought to light by city activist David Gilmore on his “Let’s Save Paterson” Facebook page. Gilmore has said the city duped the sheriff’s department into putting the inmates in danger. Gilmore has accused city officials of violating state and federal regulations regarding the handling of asbestos.

Maer declined to provide details on how many inmates were assigned to the project and how long and when they worked there. SLAP provides people convicted of non-violent offenses with an alternative to incarceration. They must report daily to the jail and are sent to perform community service projects around the county under the supervision of a corrections officer. The inmates must pay $8 per day to participate in the program.

Coke said the inmates were given protective gloves and masks while they worked at the offices. Coke said he does not recall whether any of the inmates donned protective suits that were available to workers at the site.

Even if protective equipment were provided, Maer said the sheriff would not have allowed the SLAP inmates to work at the site had he known there was asbestos.

The renovations on the offices started in early fall and came to a halt in December after the asbestos was discovered. It’s not clear how long the work continued after the asbestos was found. Workers removed some of the asbestos tiles from the building and took them in a dumpster to a city yard on Montgomery Street. Other asbestos tiles remain in the office, which has been sealed off, Coke said.

The president of the union that represents the public works employees who handled the asbestos has not responded to PatersonPress.com's request for his comment on the situation.

The city likely will retain a contractor with expertise in handling asbestos to get rid of the rest of the tiles, Coke said.