City of St. Louis Cited for Use of Illegal Wet Method of Asbestos Removal

Wet Method of Asbestos Removal Fails to Control Airborne Asbestos

On September 15, 2008, a federal court ruled that the City of St. Louis was in violation of federal asbestos safety standards by utilizing the controversial wet method for the demolition of 99 asbestos filled homes. The wet method of asbestos removal involves wetting down the building during the demolition process-removing any ability to accurately detect or control the release of airborne asbestos.

Local Residents Brought Action to Enforce Asbestos Law

Public interest law firm Public Justice brought the case on behalf of Families for Asbestos Compliance, Testing and Safety (FACTS), whose members lived near the demolished buildings. The members of FACTS were concerned that their health was threatened by asbestos released during the demolitions.

For four years, the St. Louis airport authority used the wet method of removal when razing houses to make way for airport expansion. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it was unaware of the unapproved use until 2003, after many of the houses had been demolished. In May 2003, the EPA issued an "Administrative Order on Consent" (AOC), approving the airport authority's continued use of the wet method. On June 11, 2004, the EPA suspended further use of the wet method for demolition as they reviewed public safety concerns with the project.

The court found that use of the wet method of asbestos removal was in violation of the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) for asbestos as provided in the Clean Air Act. Under the NESHAP standards, all asbestos must be removed from buildings prior to demolition. The court concluded that "[the] defendants' use of the wet demolition method to demolish structurally sound buildings violated the NESHAP [standards]." The court also noted that "the approval of the county and EPA does not shield the defendants from liability."

"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. Co-counsel Bruce Morrison, of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, agreed, "The court's ruling confirms our claim that the federal, state and local officials who are supposed to protect public health all failed to enforce the law." (Public Justice Press Release, September 15, 2008)

Asbestos Exposure Concerns Also Halted Wet Method Use in Ft. Worth

This is not the only attempted use of the wet method. In 2004, city officials in Ft. Worth, Texas, hoped to utilize the same method to tear down an abandoned building laden with asbestos. The Asbestos Coordination Team (ACT) of the EPA found that using the wet method would not allow asbestos releases to be accurately detected or controlled.

"No information from the [Fort Worth] study or the scientific literature provides a basis for assuming that off-site releases will be harmless, inconsequential, or not potentially result in contamination of area soils, dusts, and structures," wrote Dr. Aubrey Miller,EPA senior medical officer and toxicologist (Memo from Aubrey Miller, May 10, 2004). "This is an outrageous proposal because the only safe level of exposure to asbestos is zero," commented Richard Lemen, Ph.D., former Deputy Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "Even extremely low levels of exposure to asbestos can cause cancer. Because the City cannot guarantee the safety of the workers, the surrounding neighbors, or nearby school children, this project is an unethical human health experiment with a deadly toxin." (Public Justice, News Release, May 25, 2004)