Monday, May 31, 2004

EPA Allows Violation of Asbestos Safeguards

Hazardous Technique Used For Years to Remove Asbestos

This is a truly amazing story about the blatant endangerment of peoples' health in violation of Environmental Protection Agency policy, but directly sanctioned by Bush EPA officials. Amazing, but perhaps not surprising or unbelievable after the irresponsible neglect of the safety and health of the public and of workers over the past three years of the Bush administration.

First, a little background. Asbestos exposure causes cancer. Tens of thousands of workers are still dying every year from asbestos exposures they received decades ago and the U.S. Congress has spent most of the past year trying and failing to develop a program for compensating victims of asbestos exposure.

Because of its toxicity, it has to be carefully removed. OSHA regulates worker exposure to asbestos during removal operations, and EPA regulates removal to prevent community contamination. EPA regulations state that before a building that contains asbestos is torn down, all of the asbestos must be safely removed. Needless to say, it can be rather expensive to do it safely. Such is life.

This sordid story began with an article in the NY Times last week about a controversial request from the city of Fort Worth, Texas to demolish the Cowtown Inn, and abandoned dilapidated hotel, using the "wet method." Instead of using the more costly method of removing the asbestos before tearing down the building, the "wet method" involves soaking the building with water, then tearing it down with bulldozers and cranes, under the theory that wet asbestos won't become airborne. The city maintains that the wet method is just as safe as asbestos removal and wants to use the demolition fo the Inn as an experiment to show the safety of the method that could then be used for additional demolitions. EPA has in the past occasionally permitted the wet method to be used if the building is in danger of collapse, for example after an earthquake, but had not yet made a final decision whether to approve the Forth Worth "experiment" or not, but it doesn't look likely.

Travel with me now to the city of St. Louis, Missouri which is faced with tearing down hundreds of asbestos-containing houses and other buildings in order to expand its airport. It turns out, according to a story yesterday in the St. Louis Dispatch by Andrew Schneider, that the city hadn't waited for the experiment to receive approval. (You may recall that Schneider has a history of revealing asbestos-related tragedies across the country over the past several years.)

Instead of using the legal, safe, but more costly method of removing the asbestos before tearing down buildings, the city had been using the illegal, unapproved wet method for over three years to tear down hundreds of buildings.

Just one or two problems. First, there's no evidence that the wet method is actually safe::
The EPA said the wet theory has never been fully tested for safety or effectiveness in controlling the release of asbestos.
....One short series of tests on the wet method was found in EPA files. In 1994, the agency released a study on demolition done after the earthquake that damaged much of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, Calif. The researchers reported finding "significant elevations of downwind asbestos concentrations" where the water method was used on buildings with asbestos.

EPA asbestos experts, asked by their agency earlier this year to review the safety of the wet method, denounced going forward without extensive testing. Their report emphasizes what is well-known about asbestos: that the chance of exposure is remote while the material is wet; that when the debris from the runoff dries, fibers can be carried by the wind, even a gentle breeze, for long distances, thus endangering those working on the project site or living far from the demolition site.
The second problem is that it's illegal...or at least it was until the city wrote to Missouri Senator Kit Bond who complained to EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman that the regional office has ordered the city to stop using the wet method. Bond wrote
"There have been no reports of any negative health impacts related to this activity."

The senator ended his letter to Whitman with: "I hope this uncooperative attitude will not continue."

This comment about the health impact infuriated EPA health experts, who said it is common knowledge that asbestos, lung cancer and the quick-killing mesothelioma caused by asbestos exposure don't become obvious for 15 to 20 years or more.
The Kansas City EPA office objected. The office:
reminded headquarters that nothing in any of agency's laws or regulations allow wet removal as an alternative.

"Because there is no known safe level of asbestos exposure, there is no standard against which to assess risk presented by an alternative method," the briefing document said.
Despite the absurdity of Bond's statement and the objections of EPA staff,
Seven weeks after receiving Bond's letter, Whitman told him that the EPA and the airport authority had reached an agreement and that work had resumed. The wet method could be used.

Why did EPA permit this drastic change to its near-sacred asbestos regulations?

"We received a congressional (inquiry). We checked into more facts and as a result came up with this solution," .
Martha Steincamp, the top lawyer in agency's regional office in Kansas City said. And on what factors did EPA base this exemption? Proof that the method was safe perhaps? Not quite.
"The airport had already gone through the bidding process and signed their contracts. We were told they had already done a number of homes and had more homes to do," she added.

Steincamp also maintains that there is no problem because no one lives in the area where the demolition is taking place, a contention disputed by Schneider who observed that "Five other houses on the street were still occupied as the demolition continued.

Not everyone is convinced about the safety of this procedures.
"St. Louis has been flouting the law for years; and the EPA is not only refusing to prosecute their past environmental crimes, but by giving them an extension, has promised a get-out-of-jail-free card for future crimes," said Jim Hecker of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

"This lawlessness threatens the health and safety of demolition workers and nearby residents," said Hecker, environmental enforcement director for the public-interest law firm that monitors government agencies for environmental transgressions.


Eric Schaeffer, the EPA's former top enforcer, called the extension "a disaster."

"You can't have EPA professionals and experts saying it's a really bad thing and then have the agency's managers just shrugging and saying, 'Oh, well, what could we do, they'd already started.' That's not an answer."
Read the whole article. It's all worse and more absurd than I can even summarize here. Bottom line, as usual, is that we need to get some people running our government who actually care about the health of American citizens.
Dr. Richard Lemen, former deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said: "This untested method could unnecessarily expose citizens and workers to hazardous concentrations of asbestos.

"Why would EPA grant an extension in St. Louis and say it's too dangerous in Fort Worth? That is not only inconsistent but it's unconscionable."