EPA Employees Denounce Unsafe Asbestos Removal Methods

"Wet Method" Fails to Properly Contain Airborne Asbestos

June 4, 2004-Officials in Fort Worth, Texas, hope to use an unsafe, but cheap, asbestos removal technique when the city tears down the Cowtown Inn, a decaying building that has been abandoned for more than 15 years. Also dubbed the "Fort Worth Method," the "wet method" merely requires spraying asbestos-containing areas with a fire hose, then demolishing the structure with the asbestos in place. Environmental groups fear the process could become the model for demolitions nationwide, endangering both workers and the public.

The Clean Air Act and government regulations require that asbestos be contained, hand-removed, and bagged before a demolition can take place. This procedure can greatly reduce the amount of airborne asbestos. Using the Fort Worth or wet method instead, however, would not allow asbestos releases to be detected or controlled, according to the Asbestos Coordination Team (ACT) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

ACT and other EPA investigators are considering the city of Fort Worth's application to use the wet removal method. Besides not controlling asbestos releases, the wet method plan:

  • lacks detail about worker safety;
  • does not make clear who has authority for on-site decisions and "stop work orders;"
  • does not explain how asbestos-containing material could be adequately wetted;
  • contains no plan for sufficient air monitoring;
  • fails to address the problem of vermiculite asbestos in attic insulation, Monokote fireproofing, and ceiling tiles;
  • fails to appraise the community of asbestos dangers (Executive Summary, Draft ACT General Comments).

"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).

Hazardous Asbestos Removal Method Used for the Last Four Years at St. Louis Airport

The internal EPA documents critical of Fort Worth's wet removal method were leaked to environmental groups by concerned EPA employees. At the same time, the St. Louis Dispatch reported that the wet removal method has been used to raze houses for expansion of St. Louis' Lambert Field for the last four years. The EPA claims that it did not know about the unapproved use until 2003, when hundreds of houses had already been demolished. The agency then gave its approval for the St. Louis Airport Authority to use the wet removal method from that time forward, and later renewed its authorization for one year, beginning March, 2004.

"This type of exemption from established methods increases the risk to those doing asbestos (removal) and people living or working nearby," said Eric Schaeffer, who directed the EPA's national Office of Regulatory Enforcement until 2002. "They'll receive high exposures if anything goes wrong... I wouldn't want to be living next door, across the street or down the block unless this is being done by the book" (St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 29, 2004).

Wet Method Updates:

  • St. Louis Cited for Illegal Use of the"Wet Method" Asbestos Removal
  • Public Justice Petitions EPA on Use of the "Wet Method"

Asbestos Disease May Take Years to Develop

Breathing in asbestos can lead to lung cancer, an aggressive cancer called mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other asbestos-related diseases. These diseases take decades to develop. Therefore, any medical harm done from asbestos releases in the Fort Worth and St. Louis neighborhoods would not be readily apparent until many years after the demolitions were completed.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Airport authority estimates that 500 more houses must be inspected for asbestos content. They could all be candidates for asbestos removal by the wet method. The EPA has not yet determined what will be done about the Fort Worth project. Cowtown Inn is scheduled to be demolished in July.

Cowtown Inn Update:

  • EPA Won't Approve Cowtown Demolition Using Wet Method of Asbestos Removal