The lack of oversight — or governmental regulation to require it — has created a growing concern in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, over the continued cleanup in the aftermath of the most deadly and destructive tornadoes in state history.
The biggest concern now is asbestos, a well-known carcinogen once widely used in commercial and residential construction.
The exposure to asbestos fibers can lead to a wide range of long-term health issues, including mesothelioma, a cancer that can affect the lining of the lungs, abdomen and heart.
An estimated 7,000 structures in Tuscaloosa County were damaged during the string of tornadoes on April 27 that killed 41 residents and leveled entire parts of the community.
According to the Tuscaloosa News, 2.3 million cubic yards of debris already have been removed by private, state and federal cleanup efforts, but the finish of those efforts is still months away.
Both federal and state regulations require an oversight of asbestos removal, but only of commercial buildings and multi-family dwellings like an apartment complex.
There is no oversight in the removal of asbestos from single family homes. And according to government estimates, there were 2,370 homes destroyed in Tuscaloosa County. The majority of those homes were older, dating to an era when the use of asbestos was more prevalent in exterior surfaces, insulation, flooring and fireplaces.
“There is a lot of concern here. The cleanup is exposing the whole community to some really extreme, dangerous conditions,” said John Wathen, an environmental activist in Tuscaloosa and head of Friends of Hurricane Creek environmental group. “The majority of the homes destroyed were built during that asbestos era. It’s everywhere here.”
Extremely dry conditions recently have accentuated concerns because stirring up debris sends dust and dirt particles and asbestos fibers into the air. Trucks carrying away the wreckage also spread potential danger.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is the federal agency overseeing the storm debris removal, but much of the work is outsourced to area subcontractors. Contractors have been advised to wet down all work before and during removal to lessen the danger to residents.
Tuscaloosa city councilwomen Cynthia Almond asked about the dangers of asbestos removal at the last city council meeting, wanting to know exactly who was responsible for keeping residents safe. She pressed for answers concerning the process. She did not return a phone message Tuesday to discuss her concerns.
The Environmental Protection Agency offers guidance and suggestions regarding single-family homes cleanup, but it does not regulate the abatement process.
“That is a state issue,” EPA spokeswoman Dawn Harris said Tuesday.
The responsibility of regulating the safe removal of asbestos in Tuscaloosa comes under the watch of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which sent a team of regulators in Tuscaloosa. The regulators could only offer suggestions when it came to the removal of debris left from private residences.
The DEM has worked closely with the Alabama Department of Public Health to help educate residents about the dangers of asbestos removal. Efforts to reach a DEM official Tuesday were unsuccessful.
A spokesperson confirmed to the Tuscaloosa News that single-family residences are not part of the asbestos program.
“The majority of the people here aren’t going to buck the system if they can get their land cleaned up for free,” Wathen said. “We’ve got people just wanting to get this cleaned up as fast as possible, and that’s concerning to a lot of us.”