Court nixes use of wet asbestos removal

by Andrew Schneider on September 22, 2008

It’s great when someone gets nailed for taking actions that endanger public health. For some, including me, it’s even better when that someone getting busted is a government entity that acted as if the law didn’t apply to them.

That’s what happened last week when a federal court ruled that the city of St. Louis and the city-owned Lambert-St. Louis International Airport violated federal asbestos safety standards when they demolished asbestos-laden buildings in Bridgeton, a
community in the path of a new runway.

The EPA calls the technique the “wet method,” and hopes to use it in urban areas throughout the country. In using the technique, the environmental agency ignores its own detailed regulations requiring the removal, bagging and safe disposal of the cancer-causing asbestos from the structure.

Instead, water hoses were used to blast the contaminant from pipes, walls, ceilings and attics.

Beginning in 2000, St. Louis officials started destroying 2,000 structures for the construction the runway and the unauthorized method was used for more than three years.

In mid-2004, The Post-Dispatch reported that airport contractors had used the untested “wet method” on 260 homes and had plans for hundreds more. They seemed not to care that many of the homes nearby were still occupied by people who had yet to settle on the forced sales.

This did not keep contractors from targeting neighboring homes with the high-pressure streams, which, in many cases, sent the asbestos-carrying water streaming down neighborhood streets.

Many of EPA’s top toxicologists and asbestos experts decried the technique as dangerous, insisting that the effectiveness of the processed be carefully evaluated for safety. Other EPA technicians insisted that the unusual method was a “major money-saver,” and should be used. Headquarters supported the pro-industry stance until some members of Congress weighed in.

The same EPA officials that supported the St. Louis testing wanted to use the method to bring down a motel in Fort Worth and continue to try to use it in poor sections of other Texas cities. AS it happens, the method’s most vocal supporter is Richard Greene, EPA’s regional administration in Dallas. A former mayor of Arlington, Texas, he said the technique is a great idea. Yet I have found no indications that he has called for health studies on the method.

The successful suit against St. Louis officials was brought by Public Justice. The non-profit public interest law firm sued in behalf of people who lived near the demolished buildings and were concerned that their health was threatened by asbestos releases during the demolitions.

“This is the first time a federal court has held a city liable for violating federal asbestos safety standards,” said Public Justice Environmental Enforcement Director Jim Hecker, co-counsel in the case.

“It’s outrageous that public health officials risked exposing an entire community to asbestos, just so the city and the airport authority could save money by using a cheaper asbestos removal method.”

Those who lived in the community, especially those with children, worried about about asbestos fibers float freely when the runoff water dried.

“The Airport Authority used the illegal wet method on three houses within a block of my home while I was living there,” said Carole Donnelly, a Bridgeton resident. “I am outraged that no one told me that this method was illegal and that required steps to protect my health were ignored.”

Sean Donnelly, who also lived nearby added: “The city and the airport authority conducted an illegal and immoral human experiment on our community without our knowledge or consent.”

Public Justice successfully fought another EPA effort to use the method in Ft. Worth late last year.

Some in EPA say they hope that when and if Greene is replace with the change of administrations, calmer heads will prevail and conduct the extensive testing needed to determine whether the wet method is actually safe to use.

Most agree that a new technique for removing asbestos would be useful, but only if it does no harm.

If you want a lot more detail on what happened in St. Louis, here is a link.

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