Chastised and blocked in two earlier efforts to find a way around its own regulations on asbestos removal, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last month that it will conduct an experiment next spring at Ft. Chafee in Arkansas to see if an “alternative asbestos control method” is safe and effective.

EPA hazardous waste enforcement official Mark Hansen claimed the new approach is “far superior” to the wet method techniques used last year in a St. Louis community and proposed for Ft. Worth. He added, “The whole goal here is to reduce the health and safety risks to our folks and to promote urban renewal.”

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LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

“It appears as though Mr. Hansen suggests the wet method employed in St. Louis was quite possibly unsafe and dangerous for residents and demolition workers,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, who had previously criticized the EPA’s actions. “While we too want to find cheaper ways to remove asbestos, we will watch this proposed experiment carefully to be sure that it is scientifically rigorous and that the results are applicable to non-test situations with real workers and nearby families.”

Current law requires extensive precautions to avoid inhalation of asbestos fibers. Once inhaled, fibers lodge in the lungs and, many years later, result in asbestosis and other serious, often fatal lung diseases.

The idea behind the wet method experiment is to soak the structure with “special” water and then demolish it. Meanwhile, air, water and soil in the area will be monitored to check for asbestos contamination. In contrast, current law requires removing the asbestos from a structure before it is demolished. Regulations require the use of plastic sheeting and air suction to ensure that no asbestos escapes into ambient air during its removal. Once the asbestos is out, the building can be safely demolished.

After approving the use of the wet method in Ft. Worth last year, the EPA reversed its decision when public protest exposed that several of the EPA’s own scientists had questioned the plan. However, the demolition of 300 structures in St. Louis went ahead before the public became aware. When the project was exposed, it was halted, and the EPA now faces several law suits for violating the Clean Air Act.

According to the EPA, the test at Ft. Chafee will involve two comparable structures, both of which are isolated from area residents. If the alternative method proves safe and effective, the agency will support rewriting federal rules on asbestos removal. According to the EPA, the new method could reduce demolition costs by as much as 30 to 60 percent.

[Steve Clark]