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Controversy over asbestos-abatement method delays Joplin school demolitions

Questions about an experimental asbestos-removal method have delayed the demolition of several schools damaged by the massive tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo. in May 2011.


According to the Joplin Globe, the local school district assumes that five future demolition sites — Joplin High School, Franklin Technology Center, East Middle School, South and Emerson — contain asbestos, which is typically found in buildings constructed between 1930 and 1950. The known carcinogen, which causes the deadly disease mesothelioma and other serious health problems, is also found in paint and other building materials manufactured before 1977.


One Joplin school, Irving Elementary, has already been razed using the "Alternative Asbestos Control Method," or AACM, which relaxed federal guidelines for asbestos removal that date back to 1973. Those regulations, the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants, required that asbestos-containing material be

removed before demolition by specially trained technicians wearing protective gear.


The newer AACM technique, also known as the “wet” method, leaves most of the asbestos-containing materials in place. A solution of water and surfactants is sprayed on the building during demolition to limit the release of asbestos fibers.


However, an “Early Warning Report” issued by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Inspector General in December 2011 said that the agency’s own evaluations of AACM failed to show it protected the health of asbestos-removal teams, other workers or the public. Tests conducted during AACM demolitions in Arkansas and Texas, for instance, found that asbestos had escaped restricted areas, exposing unprotected workers and others in the vicinity to asbestos fibers.


The IG’s report ordered the EPA to notify field offices that AACM, which was designed to save time and money, is not to be used without a waiver.


Mike Johnson, the Joplin School District’s director of buildings, grounds and transportation, told the Globe that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has notified the district that asbestos must be removed from old South Middle School in accordance with the 1973 guidelines before demolition can proceed.


Renee Bungart, director of communications for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, told the newspaper that AACM was justified at Irving Elementary because the building was in danger of collapsing. She said the DNR is waiting for a determination on which method to use for asbestos removal at Joplin High School, and that the protocol at the other schools will be decided case by case.


“They’re still sampling, monitoring and removing items that contain asbestos, and wrapping those items and properly disposing of them,” she said.


Joplin officials have also identified at least 118 houses heavily damaged in the May 22 tornado that will have to be knocked down. Jack Schaller, the city’s assistant public works director, told the Globe that the properties must be checked for asbestos before the city can condemn the houses and hire a demolition contractor.