After several months of controversy over its consideration of an experimental, “wet method” for asbestos control in the destruction of a dilapidated building in Fort Worth (TX), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on July 23 that it has decided not to approve the city’s request.

As outlined in Fort Worth’s proposal, the building would have been sprayed with water while it was torn down and the debris carted away. According to city planners, the air would have been monitored to prove that the water kept airborne asbestos within acceptable limits.

Critics, however, pointed out that no science supported the proposition that the water would be adequate. Indeed, the last 30 years of government policy stood against that proposition. Further, critics alleged, the procedures outlined to monitor the air were faulty.

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LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

“If this ‘experiment’ had been allowed,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer, New England Regional Manager, and LHSFNA Co-Chair Armand E. Sabitoni, “it could have opened the floodgates for a return to unsafe practices that communities and unions fought long and hard to restrict.”

Pressure on the EPA had mounted throughout the spring and summer. During February and March, a number of EPA scientists questioned the planned procedure in a series of internal memos to top administrators. However, no change in direction resulted. Subsequently, some documents were leaked to the media.

Meanwhile, in Fort Worth, an alliance of community groups and unions began organizing against the demolition of the Cowtown Inn, three asbestos-laden structures that were abandoned by their former owners 15 years ago and acquired by the city because of tax delinquency.

Then, in June, an exposè in the St. Louis Dispatch revealed that the EPA already had authorized use of the “wet method” in the destruction of a series of buildings for expansion of the city’s airport. More than 200 buildings were torn down before the paper uncovered the story. The EPA quickly withdrew the permits which had exempted the city from the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Finally, came the reversal on Fort Worth’s request.

The defeat is a major one because the St. Louis approvals and the expected approval in Fort Worth had opened the door for a nationwide policy change.

The Clean Air Act requires that asbestos be removed from a structure before it is demolished. Asbestos is a microscopic fiber, and, when inhaled, it lodges in lungs, causing the slow development of asbestosis and other diseases that prove fatal some 20 to 30 years later. Because of this danger, asbestos use has been largely banned since the 1970s.

However, it was widely used before the 70s, commonly in insulation. Across the country, thousands of old, worthless buildings – now owned by cities and local governments – are filled with it. Because of the risks to workers and nearby community residents, it must be removed in ways that prevent its release into the air before the buildings are razed. Removal is time-consuming and costly.

Because of the high cost, many of these buildings remain standing and the land cannot be redeveloped. Cities and local governments are looking for a cheaper alternative. Hence, the advent of “wet method.”

“There’s a problem with asbestos in old buildings across the United States and Canada, and it’s costly to remove it,” says Sabitoni. “But that doesn’t justify fanciful and irresponsible ‘experiments’ conducted by local officials with the EPA’s blessing. Our members, who are trained in hazardous waste removal, know how dangerous these tiny fibers are and why we must follow exacting procedures to ensure their capture. We appreciate the EPA scientists who objected to the expedience of their superiors.”

[Steve Clark]