Starting in 1985, wrecking crews began to demolish the buildings that made up the old General Motors’ foundry on Irene Street in the Town of Tonawanda. Since the 1970’s, government regulations have required that all asbestos be removed from a building prior to its demolition. The foundry buildings on Irene Street were full of asbestos-containing insulation. Demolition workers’ suspicion that they were being exposed to life-threatening conditions was confirmed when federal occupational safety officials discovered that almost none of the asbestos had been removed from the foundry prior to its demolition.  Members of Local 210 of the Laborers Union walked off the job in September 1986, claiming that the demolition was being carried out in an unsafe manner and that they were being exposed to asbestos. Unfortunately, the damage was already done to them and to the workers who finished the job.

What made the old GM foundry so dangerous? Prior to federal regulations imposed in the 1970’s, fire-resistant and insulating materials were applied to hot surfaces in many foundries, including the one in Tonawanda. These materials contained asbestos. In the Tonawanda foundry, furnaces known as cupolas were used to melt and pour metal to create castings and parts.  Asbestos-laden insulation covered the cupolas’ pipes and ducts.

A typical cupola consists of a vertical steel shell lined with refractory brick. The charge is introduced into the furnace body by means of an opening about halfway up the vertical shaft.  Most cupolas are built with a drop-bottom design consisting of hinged doors under the hearth.  This allows the bottom to drop away at the end of melting to aid cleaning and repairs.  Many foundry workers were required, as part of their jobs, to clean out cupolas by chipping away at layers of built-up slag and worn asbestos refractory materials.

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Despite the threat they posed to workers’ safety, cupola furnaces were for decades the primary means of melting cast iron in foundries.  This is because cupolas employ a method of melting that is continuous in its operation, they are easy to use and their operating costs are low.

A company formerly known as Niagara Asbestos and currently known as Niagara Insulations is a thermal insulation distributor and contractor that regularly sent workers to job sites, including the Tonawanda foundry, to apply insulation to steam pipes, cupolas and other equipment.  Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Niagara Asbestos employees worked in the Tonawanda foundry’s cupola area removing and installing asbestos-containing insulation materials on pipes and ducts associated with the cupolas.  Niagara also supplied asbestos-containing insulation to sites where in-house workers applied the insulation themselves.

Niagara Insulations and the demolition company that oversaw the foundry’s demolition bear responsibility for exposing workers to asbestos.  If you or someone you know worked in a foundry that contained cupolas and currently suffers from mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease, we urge you to contact Lipsitz, Ponterio & Comerford to learn more about your legal rights.