EPA ’Wet Method’ Ban Soaks Plans for Airport Demolition

Sat August 14, 2004 - Midwest Edition

ST. LOUIS (AP) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an order barring use of the so-called “wet method” to remove asbestos from buildings being demolished to make way for a new runway at Lambert Airport.

The EPA concluded that while the wet method was “generally effective in controlling the release of large fibers and dust,” the agency lacked data to say with certainty that it was completely safe in keeping individual asbestos fibers from becoming airborne.

As a result, EPA rescinded an administrative order granted in May 2003 and extended in March, allowing the wet method. Use of the method at the project was halted in June, pending the EPA study.

EPA spokeswoman Becky Dolph said the study was performed by a contractor for the airport. She said that while the study wasn’t detailed enough to allow continued use of the wet method, there was no indication that anyone’s health was compromised.

“There was no evidence to think that what has been done has not been protective of public health,” Dolph said.

Airport Director Leonard Griggs, in a statement issued on Aug. 6, said officials are studying information provided by the EPA. He went on to say the airport is committed to ensuring public health and safety, and that its practices reflect that.

The wet method involves spraying a building with water as it is leveled. In theory, the water will prevent the microscopic asbestos fibers from being released into air or soil. But critics argue that technique is unproven and dangerous.

The EPA usually allows wet demolition only when a building is in danger of collapsing and entry would be too dangerous for workers.

Dolph said the EPA didn’t know the city was using the method to remove asbestos until hundreds of structures had been leveled. The EPA said it wasn’t until the spring of 2003 –– after Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri urged then-EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman to allow it –– that the administration gave St. Louis permission to do so.

In May, the EPA halted a proposal to use the same technique in Fort Worth, TX.

The federal Clean Air Act requires carefully removing asbestos by hand and disposing of it in hazardous waste sites.

The EPA’s asbestos experts recently denounced the wet method, saying once the asbestos dries, the wind can carry fibers long distances, exposing people near and far from the removal site.

Asbestos was used for years in building construction, especially in the post-World War II building boom and peaking in the 1970s and early 1980s. Exposure can cause asbestosis, in which asbestos fibers get into the lungs and scar them. The lungs get stiff and it becomes difficult for them to take in air or to transfer oxygen to the blood. This can lead to frequent lung infections and heart or respiratory failure. There is no effective treatment.

Whether someone will develop asbestosis depends on such factors as the intensity and duration of exposure and the person’s age when exposed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 1,493 people died from asbestos exposure in 2000.

Expansion of Lambert, including construction of the new runway, will cost $1.1 billion. The airport is buying nearly 2,000 residential and 70 business parcels to make way for the expansion. It wasn’t clear how many buildings have been demolished and how many remain.