St. Louis Asbestos Case Considered in Federal Court

February 19, 2009

A federal judge is considering whether to sanction the city of St. Louis for violating clean air laws when it demolished subdivision homes to make way for a new airport runway.

U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson heard arguments Feb. 17 in the penalty phase of a case she ruled on in September.

She found then that the city had violated the U.S. Clean Air Act when it used the so-called “wet method” to remove asbestos from homes it was demolishing to make way for a new runway at Lambert Airport.

A group of residents in the suburb of Bridgeton sued the city of St. Louis over its mishandling of the demolition from 2000 to 2004.

Attorney Jim Hecker with Washington-based Public Justice said the St. Louis case marks the first time citizens anywhere in the U.S. have tried to stop use of the illegal wet-method. He said the Environmental Protection Agency has been under enormous pressure to weaken its standard, which could potentially expose many people to asbestos fibers.

The airport is located in suburban St. Louis but it’s owned by the city of St. Louis. All told, the city demolished 1,900 homes and 70 businesses for the runway project, but the case focused on 99 of the homes.

Penalties could range from civil fines to ordering the city to identify and remediate the contamination. Jackson is not expected to announce a ruling immediately.

“The city didn’t comply with federal regulations,” Jackson said. “The question now is should the city be sanctioned for not doing a proper demolition, for violating federal law.”

For more than four years, the city used the unapproved technique called the wet method, in which a building with asbestos is sprayed with water as it is leveled.

In theory, the water will prevent the microscopic asbestos fibers from being released into the air or soil. But critics argue that the technique is unproven and dangerous.

The approved method involves carefully removing the asbestos by hand and disposing of it in hazardous waste sites.

Mark Bronson, an attorney for the residents, argued the city of St. Louis saved money by using the wet method and put its own economic interests over the health of residents.

The city’s attorney, John Cowling, said St. Louis was just following orders of the St. Louis County Health Department, which had permitting authority from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the EPA.

Judge Jackson wrote in her September ruling that the city was duty-bound to comply with federal clean air laws, or demonstrate to the EPA that the wet-demolition method was just as safe as the approved method.

The EPA has said it didn’t know the city was using the unapproved method until 2003, when Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., persuaded then-EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman to allow it.

When that authorization expired the following year, the EPA extended it for another year.

The EPA also halted a proposal to use the same technique in Fort Worth, Texas. The agency later denounced the wet method, but Hecker said it remains under pressure to ease its standard.

Asbestos was used for years in building construction, especially in the post-World War II building boom and peaking in the 1970s and early 1980s. Exposure can cause asbestosis, in which asbestos fibers get into the lungs and scar them. The lungs get stiff and it becomes difficult for them to take in air or to transfer oxygen to the blood. This can lead to frequent lung infections and heart or respiratory failure. There is no effective treatment.

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