By Jordan Schrader

Washington will no longer send prisoners to clean up cancer-causing asbestos at $4 an hour.

The state Department of Corrections says it has shut down a 23-year-old program that deployed inmate work crews to remove asbestos-containing material.

In what the agency says is an unrelated matter, it has paid a fine of more than $70,000 to settle a state investigation into cleanup practices used last June at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy.

"They were allowing the workers to be exposed to asbestos," said Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor and Industries, which investigated.

Seven inmates from Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock who were working at the Purdy prison may have inhaled dangerous dust. No one knows how much exposure it takes to trigger lung disease or cancer, Fischer said. Unlike some other substances, "There's no minimum safe amount of exposure."

Corrections, which is doing its own internal investigation of the incident, says it regrets violating regulations but disputes that anyone suffered exposure as a result. The agency didn't admit guilt as part of the settlement but agreed to do more training and buy more equipment in exchange for L&I cutting its original $141,000 penalty in half.

Corrections shut down its asbestos abatement program on Dec. 31, 18 days after the original fine and two months before signing the settlement.

"We had already been planning to shut the program down because of the risk" of exposure, Corrections spokeswoman Norah West said. Exposure to asbestos was involved in the deaths of 18 of the 65 Washingtonians who died in 2013 of job-related injuries or illnesses, Fischer said. An annual L&I ceremony honoring those who died will take place April 29 at the agency's Tumwater headquarters.

L&I penalties go into a fund that benefits injured workers and family members of people who died on the job.

In June, a work crew of prisoners spent two nine-hour night shifts removing 4,000 feet of old vinyl floor tiles and adhesive in a dining area of the Purdy prison's kitchen building.

Investigators said there was a rush to get the work done before a contractor was scheduled to install new flooring.

The workers were trained and certified in asbestos removal as part of the asbestos program within Correctional Industries, the division of the agency that manages the inmate workforce. Inmates work voluntarily. It was at least the 15th asbestos-removal job for the program in 2013 to that point.

But the investigation found shoddy work practices.

At times, the crew didn't soak the dry material in water, camera footage showed. Water is supposed to be used to keep dust out of the air, L&I said. Nor did workers always use a vacuum to dispose of it, as required. Instead, they swept and shoveled it up.

Inmates wore masks, gloves and other protective equipment to prevent exposure, but not at all times. Contaminated work clothes were removed in the wrong area and without being vacuumed to remove stray materials. And when putting up a protective barrier around the dining area, the crew missed an air vent, which may have sent dust floating into the kitchen.

Supervisors frequently checked on them without correcting the practices, L&I said.

Tests taken at the time by the crew, however, didn't detect problems. Supervisor Gary Baldwin told investigators that while there was dust, "It would take an act of God to take any kind of contamination off of floor tile."

Baldwin told investigators the crew used water, but that using too much water would have deactivated the chemical used to unstick the tile.

Investigators deemed most of the problems willful violations of the law. "They're in the business," Fischer said. "They're supposed to know."

They were the first workplace violations by Corrections to rise to that level in at least three years, according to L&I records. But the prisons agency has been cited for lower-level violations in at least four other incidents between 2011 and 2013, including one case involving asbestos. That incident didn't involve the asbestos unit, but rather a crew demolishing boats at the Port of Olympia. An advocate for inmates, Loren Taylor of Ocean Shores, said if inmates are to be used to do hazardous work, they should be overseen by professionals who will protect them.

(c)2014 The News Tribune