The federal judge who heard the case regarding improper treatment of asbestos in demolished buildings near the St. Louis airport reversed her earlier decision last week. The case dealt with houses near the airport that were demolished to make room for a new runway. A group of concerned residents in the nearby town of Bridgeton filed the suit, claiming that airport authorities used improper techniques to tear down the buildings and that they did not employ proper asbestos disposal methods.
The local residents claim that contractors sprayed the potentially toxic asbestos fibers down with water, a technique known as the "wet method", to keep the fibers from becoming airborne. Airborne asbestos fibers are known to cause mesothelioma and other forms of lung cancer in people who breathe them in. The "wet method" is much faster and cheaper than standard remediation and disposal methods. Contractors received approval to use the "wet method" from St. Louis County Health Department officials, although the tactic does not meet with federal environmental regulations.
Last September, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson ruled in favor of the citizens' group, called FACTS (Families for Asbestos Compliance, Testing and Safety) and stated that officials with the city and the airport violated federal regulations. After the judge made her ruling, attorneys for the airport and the city asserted that the group did not have the standing to file the original suit.
Judge Jackson reversed her earlier ruling and stated that FACTS did not have the standing to make the earlier claim. According to the reversed ruling, the group would have had to show that such violations were either in the process of happening or would occur in the near future. Since the last asbestos treatment occurred in the summer of 2004, the judge said that neither set of circumstances applied in this case. When the suit originated in May 2005, the demolitions had already been completed.
This reversal prevents airport and city authorities from incurring any penalties for the demolitions. Gerald Slay, Senior Deputy Director of St. Louis' Lambert International Airport, was pleased with the decision. He asserted that he and other airport authorities acted to protect both the health of the public and the sanctity of the environment during the demolitions and did their best to follow all laws and regulations in the process.
Jim Hecker, an attorney with the group Public Justice who represented FACTS in the case, disagreed with the reversal but has not made a decision on whether or not to appeal the verdict. He did say that the case signified a "major victory" for the group. Although the residents in the St. Louis case had their ruling reversed, the effect of the earlier verdict has been to stop the "wet method" of asbestos treatment in other cities.
In 2003, Missouri Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond swayed EPA Administrator and former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman to allow St. Louis contractors to use the method in place of the more expensive asbestos cleanup processes. According to Becky Dolph, EPA Deputy Counsel, federal regulations allow for "wet method" treatments when a building in immediate danger of structural collapse has been targeted for demolition, as the building may not be viable enough to withstand more stringent asbestos removal methods. She said that, in this case, St. Louis city officials used the method in cases where the "immediate danger" criterion did not apply.