LAST SEPTEMBER, Philadelphia Housing Authority plumbers ripped open Channel Saunders' kitchen wall at the Hill Creek Apartments in Crescentville and removed leaky pipes.

The pipes were covered in a white gauzelike material, Saunders said. When the workers finished, they dumped the rusted pipes on her front patio, she said.

The pipes sat there so long that Saunders decided to get rid of them herself. She used her bare hands to put the pipes - and chunks of white-tattered debris - into big black trash bags, which she put out with the regular trash, she said.

Now she's learned that she may have handled asbestos - a potentially hazardous substance when torn or disturbed.

Saunders' account comes in the wake of allegations detailed earlier this week in the Daily News about PHA workers at Hill Creek routinely ripping asbestos insulation off heating and plumbing pipes and discarding the debris behind walls or into trash bins.

Federal and local laws mandate that only trained, licensed contractors may remove asbestos from public buildings. They require asbestos debris to be disposed of in sealed bags, then trucked to a special landfill.

In other developments:

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched a criminal investigation. On Tuesday night, EPA agents interviewed Robert Smith, a PHA-hired carpenter who described the practices at Hill Creek in the Daily News.

* A former PHA plumber, David Poulterer, came forward to back up Smith's allegations. Poulterer told the Daily News that when he complained about the illegal handling of asbestos at Hill Creek in 2004, he was suspended for a week without pay.

* Air-quality samples taken from the Hill Creek apartment of Kyeeshah Wright found no unsafe levels of asbestos in the air. The Health Department had earlier confirmed that there were asbestos fibers on surfaces in Wright's basement. Officials said the air samples, taken Monday and Tuesday, provide a snapshot of only current air quality. There is no way to know how many asbestos fibers - if any - were released into the air last September when PHA plumbers did work in Wright's apartment.

* PHA workers and environmental consultants yesterday reinspected the asbestos pipe insulation in Channel Saunders' basement. They told her they'd be back to do repair work, Saunders said. The inspection of her basement comes a week after a PHA-hired environmental consultant declared the asbestos pipe insulation safe.

"My concern is, there may be a problem with asbestos and nobody is saying anything," said Saunders, who lives in the apartment with her four children - aged 9, 5, 2, and 2 months old.

Last week, Mark Jenkins, a project manager at USA Environmental Management, performed a "visual inspection" of Saunders' apartment and two others, including the apartment of Saunders' mother, Gertrude Saunders, 51, who lives next door to her daughter, and Kyeeshah Wright, whose apartment is on the opposite side of the housing complex.

Jenkins said that he had seen no visible asbestos fibers and that asbestos insulation on the basement pipes had appeared properly contained, according to his Jan. 28 report.

A day later, an inspector with the city Health Department looked around Kyeeshah Wright's basement and immediately spotted asbestos fibers on a metal file cabinet below a pipe with damaged insulation. The inspector slapped a warning sign on Wright's basement door.

The Health Department ordered PHA to hire an environmental consultant to test the air in Wright's apartment and clean up the asbestos.

PHA placed Wright and her three children in a nearby motel Tuesday night, while USA Environmental Management conducted air-quality tests and cleaned up the asbestos. The air tests - done before and after the cleanup - found "no elevated" or unsafe levels of asbestos.

"The levels that they found were low," Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz said Tuesday. "We have no evidence that [asbestos] had been stirred up."

Carpenter Robert Smith said he watched PHA plumbers last September tear asbestos insulation off pipes with their bare hands and toss the debris on the floor in Saunders' apartment and in Wright's. The brittle and torn asbestos flew everywhere, Smith said.

He said that in the apartments of Channel Saunders and Gertrude Saunders, PHA workers left torn asbestos pipe insulation all over the kitchen floors.

Channel Saunders said she didn't think anything of the white stuff all over her floors and on the pipes until a Daily News reporter knocked on her door Jan. 22.

A few days later, on Jan. 27, Jenkins, the environmental consultant, showed up at her apartment with PHA spokesman David Tillman and PHA foreman Bill Emmitt. They looked around and said everything was fine, Saunders said.

Before they left, she said, Tillman told her not to talk with the Daily News.

"It seemed like they were much more concerned about me talking to the Daily News than about the health and safety of me and my children," Saunders said.

Last night, Tillman said there had been no such conversation.

"That is not true at all," Tillman said. "I never, ever said that to Miss Saunders . . . At no time did I say those words."

David Poulterer, 45, who worked as a PHA plumber for six years, said he complained about illegal asbestos removal at Hill Creek in 2004. But no one listened to him, he said.

"I brought all this to their attention five years ago," Poulterer said. "Everybody looked at me like I was crazy and that I was just a troublemaker."

One evening, Poulterer returned home from work and as he took off his clothes, he found a big chunk of asbestos hanging from the hood of his jacket.

Poulterer said he returned to work the next day and "cursed out" a PHA supervisor, Pamela Dunbar. Dunbar charged him with insubordination. Poulterer was suspended for five days without pay. The April 20, 2004, disciplinary report never mentioned that Poulterer was angry with Dunbar over his repeated exposure to asbestos. Efforts to reach Dunbar were unsuccessful. Anyone with concerns or questions about asbestos should call the Health Department's Asbestos Control Unit at 215-685-7576.

Staff writer Barbara Laker contributed to this report.