Asbestos Problem Gone in a Puff of Smoke?

Well over two years after Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed New Orleans, one of the major–and expensive–problems that still exists is what to do with the remains of hundreds of demolished houses, virtually all of which contain asbestos materials.
In what may very well turn out to be a complete disaster, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed that the problem could, as one local reporter put it, “essentially vanish in a puff of smoke.” On 7 February, the St. Bernard Parish Council gave the EPA the go-ahead to perform an experiment in which they will burn all the materials from the demolished homes–all of which were destroyed as a result of wind and water damage. During the incineration process, the EPA will monitor the air in order to make sure that no toxic emissions result. This authorization is the result of three months of negotiations with the parish, during which EPA representatives had to convince members of the council that the burning would not pose a public health danger. There’s a catch, however.

In order for the EPA to go ahead with the project, a waiver from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality that exempts St. Bernard Parish from having to follow standard asbestos abatement procedures must be renewed–and it’s set to expire on 1 March. Otherwise, asbestos will have to be removed from over 5,000 damaged and abandoned homes slated for demolition, one at a time–a project that could run into several hundred million dollars. St. Bernard Parish president Craig Taffaro said, “[It’s] a monumental task…if we don’t get an extension, it will cripple our recovery.” The EPA proposed the project when the State of Louisiana expressed concern about what to do with the massive amounts of storm debris, given the limited amount of landfill space available–especially that designated for toxic waste such as asbestos.

The actual test burn will be done at a local landfill using a special type of incinerator that uses blowers to feed oxygen to the flames while containing any toxic emissions. In addition, recent experiments in Japan have shown that like other kinds of rock, asbestos melts and becomes a harmless, obsidian-like material when exposed to high heat. The tests are scheduled to take place during the first week of April.