Concerns Rise Over New Asbestos-Abatement Plan in Demolition

December 17, 2007

Sometime this week, bulldozers are expected to tear down a section of the Oak Hollow apartments, in Fort Worth, TX ridding the city of a neighborhood eyesore.

But some living near the run-down complex, as well as environmentalists and hazardous materials experts, say they fear it could be replaced with something much worse — tiny, cancer-causing asbestos fibers in the air.

At issue is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s largely untested method to demolish the apartment’s office building and remove the asbestos-laden rubble. The EPA hopes this less expensive process will soon be approved for use nationwide, helping other cities plagued with dilapidated structures.

Similar to a method the EPA deemed unsafe just three years ago, it will be the first time tried in a densely populated residential area and will test what the agency claims is a new, improved — and now safe — process.

But some wonder if they are being used as guinea pigs.

Shawn Smith, who lives in a complex across the street from Oak Hollow, is worried about the possible health effects on his children, ages 8 and 9. He doubts the method would have been tried in a higher-income neighborhood.

“I’m concerned about it, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Smith said. “It makes me frustrated because they won’t use the money to get the apartments fixed and improve this area.”

The dispute is reminiscent of one in 2004, when Fort Worth planned to tear down a dilapidated motel using a new, cheaper method: spraying it with water before and during demolition instead of removing asbestos. Residents and health officials feared harmful fibers could go airborne, and the Cowtown Inn was eventually was razed the traditional way, after crews sealed it in plastic and hauled out the asbestos by hand.

Since then, the EPA claims to have improved the so-called “wet” method. Before and during demolition, workers douse the building with a foam similar to what firefighters use.

“The (foam) adheres to the structure,” said Brian Boerner, the city’s director of environmental management, adding that with constant spraying, “it never has the opportunity to dry out.”

Other measures include removing 3-6 inches of dirt beneath the building after the debris is taken to a special landfill, and filtering the runoff before it is recirculated into the local water system. In some cases, depending on what is inside the structure, crews remove asbestos-laden materials before applying the foam.

In two previous tests at empty military buildings at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, results were promising and indicated that the new method was as safe as the traditional way, said Adele Cardenas Malott, a program manager in the EPA’s Dallas regional office.

“If we thought safety was an issue for us, we wouldn’t do it,” Malott said.

A panel of industry experts who recently reviewed the EPA’s 2006 study comparing both asbestos-removal methods had concerns, however. While test results were good, the experts said the agency appeared biased toward the new procedure by misstating costs and levels of airborne asbestos.

The panel questioned the EPA’s conclusion that airborne asbestos levels were insignificant, saying the agency did not assess health risks at the test sites. The experts said that could indicate “a research bias or hidden agenda.”

The panel suggested inserting a sentence in the EPA’s report saying the agency does not endorse the new method.

Panelist Tom Laubenthal, technical chief of The Environmental Institute in Marietta, Ga., said he felt the test results were inconclusive. He also is concerned that if the method is approved, construction crews would not use the same stringent monitoring and guidelines used by the EPA.

‘It could open the barn door for all kinds of noncompliance issues,” Laubenthal said.

EPA and city officials dispute claims they targeted a low-income neighborhood for the test. In fact, the area around Oak Hollow includes single-family homes and a country club in addition to many apartment complexes, Boerner said.

The Fort Worth apartment was chosen as the EPA’s third and final test of the method because the Oak Hollow building is small and met other criteria, Malott said.

After the EPA met with neighborhood groups and held a public meeting, some were so supportive that they asked why the alternative method could not be used on the entire complex, Malott said. The city will raze the other buildings using the traditional method, she said.

Scott L. Frost, a Dallas attorney working with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Public Justice, said EPA and city officials did not properly notify residents because they feared opposition similar to that which erupted in 2004. Even though the area is largely Hispanic, he said notices distributed prior to last month’s public meeting were available only in English.

“We just think it’s a horrible thing using this as an experiment in a community,” said Terry Lynch, vice president for the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers. “My only concern is that we’re going to have another whole generation of sick people. You can’t see this stuff; you can’t smell it. And it takes 25 years to manifest.”

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