The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that it will begin testing a new method for asbestos removal as a prelude to rewriting federal rules for treating the cancer-causing material.
The Bush administration will experiment at an Arkansas military base with the new approach as part of an effort to find ways to demolish abandoned buildings more cheaply. The new method wets down the fibrous material, which poses serious health problems if inhaled.
The experiment is significant because it could transform the way cities across the country tear down tens of thousands of dilapidated buildings. It will be subject to public comment, as well as internal and external scientific review, before it takes place in March.
"The whole goal here is to reduce the health and safety risks to our folks and to promote urban renewal," said Mark Hansen, an EPA hazardous-waste enforcement official.
Current law requires anyone destroying asbestos-laden structures to undertake extensive precautions in order to shield surrounding residents from airborne contamination. These include containing the asbestos with plastic sheets and sucking the air out of the building before removing the material and placing it into plastic bags, after which it goes to a hazardous-waste site.
Under the proposed "alternative asbestos control method," EPA officials will wet down a building's interior with treated water so the asbestos will not spread and then demolish it, while monitoring the water runoff. As part of the experiment, the agency will tear down two isolated one-story buildings in Fort Chaffee in Arkansas next spring using the traditional and alternative methods, so they can compare the water and soil in surrounding areas and evaluate the results.
But environmentalists and some EPA officials questioned the test, noting that residents of Fort Worth and St. Louis have resisted an earlier version of this new demolition approach on the grounds that it posed a potential public health risk.
In May, a senior EPA official wrote a report saying the agency "cannot concur" with the assessment by Lambert-St. Louis International Airport officials that their method "of wet asbestos demolition can be considered a safe and effective means of handling asbestos and preventing unsafe asbestos exposures to the public or the environment." Several St. Louis residents are suing on the grounds that the wet asbestos method used on 300 area homes violated the Clean Air Act.
"EPA already has been blocked twice for good reason from conducting asbestos experiments on local residents, and taking a third run at it with a rigged experiment on a military base won't make their ultimate goal any less dangerous," said John Walke, clean air director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group. "Following the law and removing asbestos the right way will better protect the public."
Hansen said the new approach EPA plans to use is "far superior" to the method proposed for St. Louis and Fort Worth, and could cut demolition costs 30 to 60 percent.