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EPA reverses course on unapproved asbestos-removal methods

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed the use of experimental asbestos-removal techniques that a federal watchdog now says pose a threat to public health.


An "Early Warning Report" issued today by Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins said the methods, which were designed to save time and money but never approved, “are currently being used or considered at multiple sites,” including the Hanford Superfund Site near Richland, Wash., a former Department of Energy nuclear weapons production facility.


Elkins ordered the EPA to notify field offices that the unapproved method, called "Alternative Asbestos Control Method," or AACM, are not to be used without a waiver, and to identify all future demolition projects that authorize techniques that deviate from approved standards.


The EPA, which regulates asbestos removal from pubic buildings slated for demolition, issued the first federal asbestos abatement guidelines in 1973. According to the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), asbestos-containing material must be removed before demolition by specially trained technicians wearing protective gear.


In 1999, EPA began exploring alternative ways to remove asbestos, including AACM, a technique that leaves most of the asbestos-containing materials in place. To limit the release of asbestos fibers, a solution of water and surfactants is sprayed on the building during demolition.


However, the EPA’s own evaluations of AACM failed to show the so-called “wet” method protected the health of asbestos-removal teams, other workers or the public. For example, “settled dust” tests during AACM demolitions in Arkansas and Texas found that asbestos had escaped restricted areas, exposing unprotected workers and others in the vicinity to asbestos fibers.


Labor unions, consumer-protection groups and environmentalists have urged the EPA to put an end to AACM. Advocacy groups Public Justice and the Natural Resources Defense Council eventually sued the agency for records documenting tests of the unapproved methods. The records request yielded 26,000 pages of documents, including a report by an EPA scientist that said the techniques did not comply with health and safety standards and may have endangered demolition workers and its own employees. Other records show that respiratory protection requirements for workers weren’t met and warning signs weren’t posted, as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.


"We hope this new report will finally put the nail in the coffin of this unapproved and dangerous method of asbestos removal," said Jim Hecker, the director of Public Justice's Environmental Enforcement Project.