Protecting the environment and the public from the dangers of Asbestos
By Bruce Kirby ghostwritten by Jay North
There is no question that the water infrastructure in the United States is aging to the point of needing major repairs. However, there is more than just money standing in the way of making the necessary upgrades to the nation’s water delivery system. It’s asbestos.
When the water infrastructure was initially built, experts surmise that up to 200,000 miles of asbestos cement was used to bridge the gap when steel wasn’t readily available. In the 1940s, little was known about the dangers of asbestos use and civil engineers readily embraced the use of this strong, durable and readily available composite to help supply water to burgeoning suburban areas.
Today, engineers surmise that approximately 15% of the water that currently flows throughout the U.S., with higher concentrations in the western portions of the country due to the extremely fast population growth experienced in this region, is carried by asbestos cement mains. Asbestos cement, when installed, had an expected lifespan of between 50-80 years, and many of the existing mains are reaching their maximum useful lives. However, getting them replaced isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Current regulations that govern the use and replacement of asbestos cement water pipes are vague, at best. In most cases, governing bodies really aren’t sure what to do with the existing mains and the latest scientific data isn’t offering any clues.
Lack of guidelines
The EPA is considered the prevailing authority on how to handle potentially dangerous compounds. However, in the case of asbestos cement, even the EPA isn’t offering any real guidance on what to do to replace and dispose of these water mains. Instead, they are leaving the responsibility in the hands of local governments.
The issue at hand at the local level is that regulations can vary from state to state and even between regulatory agencies within a given state. California, for example, has 19 different agencies with a stake in deciding how to handle asbestos cement pipes, each with their own opinions and levels of stringency attached.
One method for removing older, asbestos cement pipes uses a method known as pipe bursting. The asbestos pipes are broken while still underground. The cavity is widened and a new pipe is pulled into place. Some states interpret EPA regulations as a ban on pipe bursting while others interpret it to mean that contractors simply have to be licensed in proper asbestos handling before they can remove asbestos cement pipes.
The main crux behind the lack of uniform guidance simply points towards a lack of solid data regarding the impact that asbestos cement pipes will have on the environment as they are being replaced. Obviously, asbestos has been shown to have a major health and safety risk when used in other applications and until there is solid data available that shows that asbestos cement won’t pose a large health or environmental impact when removed, those left with the responsibility of replacing it will continue to struggle with finding a solution.
The good news is that there have been efforts to begin to collect the kind of data that has the ability to provide insight into the potential environmental impacts of pipe bursting or other asbestos cement pipe removal/replacement methods.
Samples of soil, air and water have been collected from sites that have experienced pipe bursting in order to determine the level of asbestos contamination that may exist. And the results are promising.
The current study is expected to reach completion this year and the hope of many local regulators is that the findings will produce more solid federal guidance with regard to the proper way to handle the replacement of asbestos cement piping. It is this guidance that engineers and contractors are looking for when it comes to better understanding the risks associated with AC pipe rehabilitation and offering them a “best practice” for replacing the aging pipe.
And, while federal research is ongoing, local municipalities are being encouraged to conduct independent testing in order to receive approval for urgent rehabilitation projects that simply cannot wait for federal guidance. These projects can be conducted on a much smaller scale, under 260 linear feet per year, in order to conduct testing and fully understand the impacts that rehabilitation is having on the environment surrounding the mains being replaced.
This approach will take time but will offer additional data to the EPA and other regulatory bodies in order to help guide the development of future policies regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos cement pipes while protecting public health.
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