Though hardly a surprise after the summer’s negative publicity, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an order August 6 stopping so-called “wet method” asbestos removal at the St. Louis airport expansion worksite. Already, hundreds of contaminated buildings had been demolished while being sprayed with water in a highly questionable effort to keep the microscopic fibers from becoming airborne and inhaled.

Under the U.S. Clean Air Act, no building can be demolished until the asbestos in it has been removed and disposed following hazardous waste guidelines. The wet method is not an approved means of asbestos removal, and no scientific evidence indicates that it will prevent airborne risks to demolition workers or local residents.

The EPA pointed its finger at the city, Missouri Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond and former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman, saying the city initiated the project without permission but was later granted permission after Bond intervened with Whitman. Bond chairs the Senate committee that sets the EPA’s budget.

The decision in St. Louis followed a decision in July not to authorize a similar project in Fort Worth, Texas. There, a coalition of community activists, local unions (including the Laborers) and environmental scientists pressured the EPA and the city to back off plans to raze a dilapidated and abandoned, asbestos infested hotel. Leaked internal EPA documents showed that the agency’s own scientists opposed use of the wet method, which Fort Worth and the EPA touted as an “experiment” when their plan first came to light.

According to the EPA’s internal report on the St. Louis project, it is impossible to determine if area residents or demolition workers were exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos when the buildings were destroyed because the air quality tests employed by the airport – a system known as phase contrast microscopy (PCM) – are unable to measure up to 99 percent of asbestos fibers.

The more accurate test procedure – transmission electron microscopy (TEM) – is four times more expensive.

As with the tests, cost apparently drove the authorities’ decision to use the wet method in the first place. Removing asbestos according to hazardous waste guidelines is substantially more expensive than spraying water while knocking down a structure and hauling the debris away in trucks. In his earlier petition to the EPA, Bond stated that conventional removal would be slow the project and raise its cost.

“But that’s why the law exists,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, responding to the cost issue. “Before the Clean Air Act was passed, clean-up workers and area residents were routinely exposed to hazardous levels of airborne asbestos during demolitions because it was cheaper that way. The EPA’s attempt to return to those days is beneath contempt.”

[Steve Clark]