Demolition of Abandoned Building Threatens Public Health, Says NRDC
EPA Considering Unsafe Method of Asbestos Removal for Use Around the Country
WASHINGTON (May 25, 2004) - Internal Environmental Protection Agency documents reveal that the agency is planning to allow the city of Fort Worth to demolish an abandoned building using a method that violates the Clean Air Act's asbestos abatement regulations, putting the surrounding community at risk.
The documents, which were obtained by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, show that the EPA's inspector general's office and its own scientists, as well as independent experts, have condemned the proposed method as inadequate and unsafe, and that the agency and the city of Fort Worth have deceived city residents about the threat of exposure. (For access to the leaked documents, click here. The inspector general's report is available here.
"EPA's approval of this method is tantamount to approving an illegal experiment on human beings," said Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at NRDC. "It likely would expose workers on the site and residents in surrounding neighborhoods to high levels of a known carcinogen -- without their full knowledge or consent. It's scientifically indefensible and morally repugnant."
EPA has established stringent work practices in keeping with Clean Air Act regulations requiring containment of asbestos during demolition projects. These rules generally call for removing asbestos-containing materials prior to demolition, which can be costly.
Since 1999, Fort Worth has been seeking EPA approval of an asbestos abatement method that would violate the Clean Air Act rules. The city's inadequate and illegal approach, which has come to be called the "Fort Worth method," relies on nothing more than partially wetting down a building with a fire hose during demolition to limit asbestos fibers from escaping the work site into surrounding residential neighborhoods. The proposed method does not require the safe removal of asbestos-contaminated materials before demolition.
The city proposed a three-phased approach to obtaining EPA's approval of the Fort Worth method. First, the city demolished a small, single-family dwelling that didn't contain any "friable" asbestos, which can be crushed by hand-pressure and therefore is more likely to become airborne. Next, the city plans to knock down the Cowtown Inn, which contains enough asbestos-contaminated material to be regulated under the Clean Air Act rules. If the second experiment is deemed successful, Fort Worth plans to conduct a third test, demolishing multiple buildings using the Fort Worth method. If approved, the method would then be available for other cities to use when they demolish thousands of similar structures across the country.
The demolition site for the second test, the Cowtown Inn in East Fort Worth, is an abandoned motel that has become a haven for transients and illegal activities. The motel is adjacent to a predominantly minority and lower- to middle-income neighborhood, near a school, park, playground and creek.
The city has told the neighborhood that its new technique is safe and that its monitoring program will ensure that no dangerous asbestos is released. In fact, the leaked internal EPA documents show that EPA scientists and independent experts maintain that the method is not safe, and that monitoring will not prevent airborne asbestos contamination. The city's monitoring method, they say, will put workers at the site and local residents at significant risk during and following the demolition.
The most damning indictments of the Fort Worth method come from EPA scientists and independent experts. The expert committee of EPA's asbestos scientists, called the Asbestos Coordination Team (ACT), issued a scathing internal critique of the Fort Worth Method. Individual members of the ACT have written even stronger detailed criticisms of the project and practices by EPA's Dallas office.
For example, the scientists stated:
"The risk criterion...would allow for unacceptable exposures to the community.... The proposed residential exposure limit...represents an asbestos exposure level commonly considered to require emergency response on behalf of the U.S. EPA." (Memo from EPA scientist Christopher P. Weis, Ph.D., to ACT, March 18, 2004, pg. 1)
"No information...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. Furthermore, the current study design does not include relevant sampling and analysis to determine if offsite asbestos contamination has occurred." (Memo from EPA scientist Aubrey K. Miller, MD, MPH, to ACT, May 10, 2004, pg. 1)
"The assumption that the likelihood of a 'significant air release is extremely remote' is without foundation." (Draft Summary of ACT General Comments on Ft. Worth, May 13, 2004, pg. 6)
"Monitoring will not identify a potential exposure until a release has occurred." (ACT Draft Summary, pg. 1)
Despite these objections, EPA is considering issuing what is called a "formal enforcement discretion letter," which in effect promises the agency will not to sue Fort Worth for violating the Clean Air Act (For a copy of the EPA letter stating the agency is prepared to issue an enforcement discretion letter, click here.) Such a promise would violate longstanding EPA policy.
Finally, the city has told the community that it cannot afford to follow normal safe and effective demolition procedures. However, in a May 17 article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Brian Boerner, director of the city's environmental management department, conceded that the cost of the Fort Worth Cowtown Inn experiment will at least equal the cost of complying with the more protective Clean Air Act rules, undermining their original rationale for the project, which was to save money.
"EPA and Fort Worth would spend roughly the same amount of money, and waste a lot less time, if they did the right thing and protected the citizens of Fort Worth," said John Walke, the director of NRDC's Air Program. "The EPA should have learned a lesson from its World Trade Center scandal, when it misled New Yorkers about the threat of airborne asbestos. We hope the scientists inside the agency will prevail and put a stop to the unethical experiment in Fort Worth."