Aug 1, 2011 - Illinois Cleanup of Potentially Deadly Asbestos Delayed
When the city of Belleville authorized the demolition of two burned out hulks at the corner of Jackson and East Main Street it was to protect the public from a potentially hazardous situation. However, that very action has created yet another potential public health crisis, possible exposure to asbestos, in the aftermath.
The two buildings burned nearly a year ago and the hulks were left standing while the owner, apparently, did nothing to rectify the situation. Citing the danger the buildings created to public health, city officials including the Mayor of Bellville, Mark Eckert, hired a local construction/demolition company to tear down the offending structures within hours of extinguishing the fire.
However, those buildings contained asbestos materials and now the city is stuck with twin holes filled with seven-foot tall weeds and mounds of asbestos contaminated dirt and debris exposed to the open air, elements, and passersby. You’d think that plans would be in the works to get this public health hazard cleaned up—asbestos kills thousands of people per year, causing diseases like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis—however, any abatement plans have been put on indefinite hold due to legal constraints.
On one side you have the owners of the buildings who claim that the mayor didn’t have the right to demolish their buildings and, because he did so, should be responsible for the cost of the cleanup as well. On the other side, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) has stepped in because Eckert violated state laws when he authorized the demolition without notifying IEPA officials prior to beginning the work.
The IEPA has since cited both the city and the excavation company it hired as well as the building owners for their failure to notify the IEPA of the demolition before the heavy equipment moved in.
Now, after Eckert has failed to meet several IEPA enforced deadlines to remove the carcinogenic materials from the vacant lot, IEPA officials have said they will turn the matter over to the state’s Attorney General's office for potential legal action against the state, Eckert, and the buildings’ owners.
Officials, owners, and the state regulatory committees are looking at a prolonged legal battle while a known cancer causing material is left decomposing in an open-air lot.
Therein lay the danger. Asbestos containing materials were common before the United States EPA severely restricted their use—effectively outlawing them—and intact materials pose little danger to human health. However, after the materials degrade and the asbestos fibers become airborne they become an extreme danger to human health. Airborne asbestos can be inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the mucous membranes of the body and cause a host of health problems including a lethal form of cancer called mesothelioma.
The IEPA has said that because the asbestos materials are embedded in the dirt, the risk of exposure is low, but federal regulations state that no amount of asbestos exposure can be considered “safe.” In fact, OSHA regulations mandate that entire jobsites must be shut down if airborne asbestos is found in levels as minute as 1 tenth of 1 fiber per liter of air.
So while the interested parties battle this issue out, the public—potentially—remains at risk.