No rules cover dealing with asbestos in damaged homes
State, EPA say that safety rules aren’t necessary
Published: Monday, June 13, 2011 at 3:30 a.m.
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TUSCALOOSA | The 20 or so damaged homes that Tree Farm contractors have already demolished were given a heavy dousing of water before, during and after demolition.
About asbestos:Neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor the Alabama Department of Environmental Management requires contractors to ensure the safe and proper handling and disposal of asbestos from single-family homes.
The EPA does offer some tips on how to reduce exposure to the known cancer-causing agent. Below is a few of the EPA’s suggestions. The full list can be found here: asbestos/pubs/ashome.html.
- Keep activities to a minimum in any areas with damaged material that may contain asbestos.
- Take precautions to avoid damaging asbestos material.
- Have removal and major repair done by people trained and qualified in handling asbestos. It is highly recommended sampling and minor repair also be done by professionals.
- Don’t dust, sweep or vacuum debris that may contain asbestos.
- Don’t saw, sand, scrape or drill holes in asbestos materials.
- Don’t use abrasive pads or brushes on power strippers to strip wax from asbestos flooring. Never use a power stripper on a dry floor.
- Don’t sand or try to level asbestos flooring or its backing. When asbestos flooring needs replacing, install new floor covering over it, if possible.
- Don’t track material that could contain asbestos through the house. If you cannot avoid walking through the area, have it cleaned with a wet mop. If the material is from a damaged area, or if a large area must be cleaned, call an asbestos professional.
— Source: Environmental Protection Agency
T.R. Pate, who works for the Fosters-based company, said there’s no federal, state or local requirement to spray water on the damaged homes, but he’s doing it for his safety, as well as those of his co-workers and the people still living nearby.
“It’s safe for us and safe for the environment,” Pate said. “It keeps the asbestos down, and there is asbestos everywhere.”
Asbestos, the known carcinogen used as a fire retardant in buildings for almost a decade after it was banned in 1978, is suspected to be present in most of the buildings damaged or destroyed in the April 27 tornado. Hosing down the damaged areas with water is one of the most reliable ways to keep asbestos particulates from circulating through the air.
About 7,000 buildings sustained damage when the EF-4 tornado ripped a 5.9-mile gash through the city. With the dry weather that’s followed, any disturbing of the wreckage can send fine particulates floating in the air for yards.
The danger posed by asbestos was a topic of discussion during last week’s City Council meetings, when Councilwoman Cynthia Almond pressed for answers on who exactly is responsible for ensuring the materials were disposed of properly.
In short, no one.
“It’s something this department has never done,” said John McConnell, director of the city’s Planning and Development Services, which oversees building inspections and construction.
No city department has ever been required to do so.
Federal regulations require asbestos disposal oversight only for commercial, governmental and multi-family buildings, like apartment complexes.
But when it comes to single-family homes, the only guidance offered by regulators are suggestions, said Dawn Harris-Young, spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 4, which oversees Tuscaloosa and the southeastern United States.
The EPA offers suggestions on how to control the airborne spread of the toxin and where it most likely is located inside a home.
Harris-Young said she doesn’t know why single-family homes are not monitored by the EPA for asbestos control and removal.
Locally, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is responsible for ensuring asbestos is properly handled in commercial, government and multi-family structures
Similarly, ADEM’s rules are directly in line with federal regulations and go no further.
“Single-famly residences are not regulated as part of our asbestos program,” said ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes. “Although handling asbestos at those sites is not regulated, we do recommend that the residents wet the material and use caution when working in those areas.”
Hughes said ADEM paired with the Alabama Department of Public Health on an awareness program on proper ways to handle asbestos and lead in damaged homes.
A small team of ADEM officials was in Tuscaloosa last week checking on debris removal from buildings that fall under the guidelines. The team also offered suggestions on controlling asbestos to those working in single-family home neighborhoods, Hughes said.
“There’s no entity here to make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Richardson said.
City officials said inspectors could enforce rules on handling asbestos, but there would be a required amount of training before enforcement could begin.
Danny Hensley, the operations project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency overseeing storm debris removal, said the company contracted with the Corps to handle the work is following all safe handling guidelines for asbestos.
The company, Phillips & Jordan of Knoxville, Tenn., has at least one team of asbestos handlers digging through the rubble pushed to the curbside in search of materials that may contain asbestos.
The team is using water to keep the particulates out of the air, but how it is disposing of the materials isn’t clear. Officials at Phillips & Jordan’s temporary office in Tuscaloosa declined to answer questions about its asbestos handling procedures.
John Wathen, a Tuscaloosa-based environmental activist who heads the Friends of Hurricane Creek environmental group, said the lack of rainfall and excessive heat in the area in recent weeks has created dry and brittle construction materials that likely contain asbestos.
It is irresponsible not to have anyone from the city, state or federal governments ensure the material isn’t scattered through the air, he said.
“This stuff was in many, many applications in those homes,” Wathen said. “So to think it’s not readily available in the dust they’re seeing out there now, I think that’s a dangerous proposition.
“It seems ludicrous to me to exclude any building. They were all built during the asbestos era.”
Reach Jason Morton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0200.