How Does the EPA Investigate and Clean Up Asbestos-Contaminated Sites?

When environmental emergencies, oil spills, or natural disasters occur, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for taking action and cleaning any contaminated land. They are also responsible for public or industrial areas containing asbestos due to the result of past industrial operations, improper waste disposal, abandoned hazardous waste sites and occasionally where asbestos occurs naturally.

The EPA is currently undertaking asbestos cleanup projects in more than 20 states. These contaminated areas are known as Superfund Sites. If asbestos is reported, the EPA must undergo a multi-phase Superfund Cleanup Process to completely remove any contaminated materials.

Phase 1 – Preliminary Assessment / Site Investigation

The EPA will send out a team to visit the site and review any historical data about the area. From this information, the team will use its Hazard Ranking System to determine if the site is a threat to the health of surrounding residents.

Phase 2 – National Priorities List (NPL) Site Listing Process

Depending on the threat level, the area in question could be added to the National Priorities List (NPL), which includes highly dangerous sites designated for long-term cleanup. If a site is added to the NPL, a public notice will be published so the community will be aware of the cleanup proposal. The EPA then allows some time for members of the community to come forward with any questions or comments about the notice. After this time period, the site is formally added to the NPL if the Superfund Cleanup Process is still needed.

Phase 3 – Remedial Investigation / Feasibility Study

In this phase, the EPA does a more thorough investigation to decide how the site can safely be cleaned, what equipment is required, and what the cost will be. There is also a large effort to collaborate with members of the surrounding community to keep them informed throughout the cleanup.

Phase 4 – Record of Decision (ROD)

The ROD is a document that addresses contingency information for any cleanup alternatives at the site. When alternatives are researched, it is often important for the EPA to consider how the site will be used in the future after cleanup is completed. Information in the ROD also needs to be presented for public comment to continue involving the community.

Phase 5 – Remedial Design / Remedial Action

During this phase, the actual cleanup of the site takes place. The EPA continues to collaborate with and to inform the surrounding community if any new developments or changes occur.

Phase 6 – Construction Completion

Although it’s not the final step, at this point the EPA can confirm that no additional physical construction is needed for the cleanup.

Post Construction Monitoring

Once a site is cleaned, the EPA still needs to ensure that the site will be safe for future use. This is done by using technology to monitor the environment or enforce any restrictions. After the EPA can confirm that the site is no longer a threat to human health, it can be removed from the National Priorities List and ideally be returned to a reusable state for industrial or commercial purposes.

The Superfund Cleanup Process has been incredibly effective for NPL sites in the past. However, this is not a quick process. For example, one site in California was first added to the NPL in 1983 due to asbestos contamination. The site was not removed from the list until 1998. The amount of time needed depends on many factors, such as level of contamination, required equipment, and overall cost. Currently, there are more than 1300 sites on the National Priorities List, and over 50 sites that have been proposed to be added. Approximately 35 of these sites are being cleaned due to asbestos contamination.