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Published: July, 2004; Vol 1, Num 2

 

Science Takes a Back Seat
In EPA Asbestos 'Experiments'

"We'd all like to find a cheaper way to get rid of dilapidated, asbestos-infested buildings," says LIUNA General President Terence M. O'Sullivan, "but this is not the way to do it."

Alternate description

LIUNA General President Terry O'Sullivan

O'Sullivan refers to what public health experts and environmental advocates are calling the "Fort Worth Experiment." A series of exposés this spring have brought the issue into the public spotlight.

In July, if the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approves the Texas city's request, Fort Worth hopes to tear down the Cowtown Inn - a former hotel, abandoned for 15 years and confiscated by the city after its owners failed to pay taxes.

However, as we go to press, the Texas Department of Health, Division of Toxic Substances Control, responding to a June 22 letter from the Texas AFL-CIO, announced that it will intervene and assess the city's request before further review by EPA.  That will take three to six months, so the city's plans will be postponed at least until October.

The delay will likely increase pressure on the EPA to reverse a policy direction that has been quietly unfolding for more than a year. Last month, after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story, the agency was forced to cancel permits to use the so-called "wet method" to demolish asbestos-contaminated buildings to make room for an airport expansion. Issued in March, 2003, the EPA permits exempt the city from requirements in the Clean Air Act to remove asbestos before demolishing a structure.

By the time of the Post-Dispatch story, more than two hundred buildings already had been torn down. Eric Schaeffer, who directed the EPA's Office of Regulatory Enforcement until 2002, told the Post-Dispatch, "This type of exemption…increases the risk to those doing asbestos [removal] and people living or working nearby. They'll receive high exposures if anything goes wrong. I wouldn't want to be living next door, across the street or down the block unless this is being done by the book. No way."

Prior to the 1970s, asbestos was commonly used in construction as insulation, ceiling tiles and in a variety of other forms. Thus, it is present in most older buildings.

Over the past thirty years, research and litigation proved that asbestos, a microscopic fiber, causes lung cancer (mesothelioma) and other respiratory diseases when inhaled. Thus, federal law banned its use and now requires its removal from buildings before they are demolished.

Because of the dangers in the removal process, however, the work is painstaking and protracted. Like city officials across the country, those in St. Louis and Fort Worth would like to avoid the higher associated costs. They petitioned the EPA for the "wet method" exemptions.

Under the Fort Worth proposal, the city's Environmental Management Department would spray the structure (actually, three buildings are involved) with water while it is torn down. The thinking is that the water will keep asbestos from becoming airborne and inhaled.

However, according to several internal EPA documents leaked to the media, EPA scientists have raised a host of questions about the project. Some have to do with the way the experiment will be conducted, others with the assumptions that underlie the project's concept.

For example, after reviewing the project's design, EPA evaluators wrote:

It is important to consider that while airborne release from some ACM [asbestos contaminated material -ed.] may be adequately controlled by wetting, releases from other ACM may not. EPA has demonstrated that airborne release from certain ACM is only minimally controlled by wetting. This is clearly demonstrated in the case of vermiculite attic insulation and may also be true of other vermiculite containing materials such as wall board, ceiling tile, concrete decking and Monokote spray-on fireproofing. Given the uncertainties surrounding vermiculite releases to the air, the document should state that vermiculite would need to be removed prior to FW demolition (Hofmann and Simons memo, March, 2004).

The evaluators went on to say:

There are also concerns regarding the ability of NESHAP [National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants -ed.] asbestos sampling techniques to detect the presence of the more toxic forms of asbestos fibers that are associated with vermiculite. The Ft. Worth Method indicates that PLM [Polarized Light Microscopy -ed.] will be used to determine the types and quantities of asbestos that are present in the buildings prior to demolition. Research at Libby, Montana has shown that PLM is not capable of detecting the more toxic forms of asbestos, such as tremolite, that is present in Libby vermiculite. The Dallas, Texas area was the second largest recipient of vermiculite shipments from Libby, Montana (for more on the vermiculite danger from Libby see Former LIUNA Dispatcher Leads Asbestos Fight in Libby).

An evaluator from a different EPA region wrote:

The current Ft. Worth protocol regarding the meaningful identification of environmental contamination and acceptable levels, if such contamination occurs, clearly contradicts ongoing work and efforts in other EPA Regions and Programs, and can only be viewed by the public as inconsistent and duplicitous with regard to this site.

[G]iven that this research is being conducted in a populated area and may result in increased exposure and resultant health risks to a known carcinogen for the surrounding community, this proposal should be submitted to an appropriate institutional review board (Miller memo, May 10, 2004).

However, in an earlier, February 13 memo to his superiors, Regional EPA Administrator Richard Greene, who is handling the city's request for an exemption from standard asbestos removal requirements, dismissed objections of EPA headquarters staff as "extraneous issues…that impede this test, now in the third year of discussion" (Greene memo).

So far, while the exposé swirls in the aftermath of the leaked documents, the EPA had kept quiet, saying only that it is still analyzing data submitted by Fort Worth.

Others, however, are speaking out. A senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Dr. Jennifer Sass, said, "EPA's approval of this method is tantamount to approving an illegal experiment on human beings. It likely would expose workers on the site and residents in surrounding neighborhoods to high levels of a known carcinogen - without their full knowledge or consent. It's scientifically indefensible and morally repugnant."

Former Assistant Surgeon General and former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Richard A. Lemen, who traveled to Fort Worth to address a June 15 community meeting, said, "This is an outrageous proposal because there is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos. Even extremely low levels of exposure to asbestos can cause cancer." 

Also attending that meeting was LIUNA Local Union #154 Business Agent Robert Anthony. Anthony has joined in with the Asbestos Workers International Union and other Texas AFL-CIO unions in opposition to the project. He said 105 "irate" citizens came out to the meeting, and only two people spoke in favor of the demolition. Nevertheless, he noted that the city council and mayor are closely aligned with the interests of local developers. "It's not proper to experiment with peoples lives," he said, "but if the EPA gives approval, it's a done deal. Only a lawsuit can stop it."

"If this experiment is approved for Fort Worth and conducted as planned," says O'Sullivan, "tens of thousands of workers and community residents across the country will be unnecessarily exposed to an extreme and often fatal hazard as other cities follow the EPA lead. The EPA and other Bush Administration agencies have been heavily criticized this year for putting politics ahead of science in policy formulation. This looks like another disastrous example."

[Steve Clark]