A federal project to test an experimental method of removing asbestos begins this month at Fort Chaffee, Ark., and some have expressed safety concerns.
Beginning April 24, crews will use a conventional method to remove asbestos from a World War II-era building at an abandoned hospital complex. Workers will remove asbestos from a second building in the complex using the experimental method.
The buildings will be demolished in the process.
The complex is on more than 7,000 acres the Department of Defense classified as excess property and gave to the city of Fort Smith in 1995.
David Eppler, a federal Environmental Protection Agency enforcement officer working on the project, said the agency intentionally picked a site that wasn’t near neighborhoods or schools to conduct the demolition.
In 2004, the agency abandoned plans to use the Cowtown Inn in Fort Worth after local residents and environmental groups argued the inn was too close to populated areas. Eppler said concerns raised by scientists persuaded the agency to pick the more remote location in Arkansas.
“We understand this is a research project and we want to make it safer,” he said.
The two buildings at Fort Chaffee also are identical, which will make it easier to compare the two methods, Eppler said.
In the conventional method, pipes and other material containing asbestos are sealed in plastic and a pressure machine used to prevent fibers from escaping.
The experimental method involves water containing a substance similar to dishwashing soap. The water is continuously sprayed on the building during demolition to keep asbestos fibers from being released into the air.
But critics have said that once the asbestos dries, wind can stir up the fibers, exposing people close to and far from the removal site.
“Some of the asbestos could be released into the environment,” said Jim Hecker of the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a group that opposed the use of the Cowtown Inn and that also has a lawsuit pending in Missouri to prevent the use of the experimental method there.
“We’re just so concerned they’re throwing precautions out the window,” said Terry Lynch, a vice president and health-hazard administrator for the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers.
He said the most important way to prevent asbestos fibers from escaping is to seal the building.
“The fibers, you can’t see them, you can’t smell them and they get into your lungs and it takes from anywhere to 15, 20, 40 years to manifest,” Lynch said.
Asbestos was once commonly used in insulation. It is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that, when released into the air, can cause health problems including asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer, according to the EPA.
Larry Weatherford, project manager for Crawford Construction Co. at Fort Smith, said workers who will conduct the demolition at first were concerned when they realized the method was experimental.
“Our insurance is going to go up a little bit,” he said.
But Weatherford said he’s not concerned. Thirty-six monitors will be set up on the site and if asbestos is detected, the demolition will be stopped, Weatherford said. Asbestos-removal workers will wear protective suits and respirators and only certified workers can enter or get near a building where asbestos is being removed.
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