In Tarentum, Pennsylvania, just 20 miles northeast of downtown Pittsburgh, abandoned homes are a normal occurrence. These homes, in some cases left empty for years, are eyesores as well as safety and health hazards.
The small borough government does its best to keep ahead of the problem and recently identified 17 houses that it plans to demolish this year. But laws governing the removal of asbestos will likely slow them down and cost the borough a good deal more in demolition expenses.
A recent article in the Tribune explains that, in 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency updated its National Emissions Standards of Hazardous Air Pollutants policies to include residential demolitions carried out by municipalities.
Specifically, that means Tarentum will need to pay to have each of the 17 houses surveyed for the presence of asbestos. If the toxic material is found, the municipalities then must pay a permit fee for that particular building.
The cost of the permit, explains the article, depends on the size of the structure and the amount of asbestos found. Then, the asbestos must be removed by a licensed abatement professional.
With all those costs combined, it’s unlikely that Tarentum will be able to demolish all 17 houses this year and may have to delay some of the demolition until next calendar year.
The town had set aside $50,000 for the work and is applying for a grant to address more of the expenses involved with the demolitions.
The new rule, applied in 2011 and implemented by the Bureau of Environmental Health in Allegheny County’s Health Department, seemed to catch borough officials off-guard.
They claim they had no knowledge of the changes. Old laws used to require asbestos abatement only when municipalities were demolishing two or more houses on a single block.
“This is something that is brand new, that nobody was aware of,” Borough Manager Mike Gutonski said.
“Each community that has these plans for blight, they’re running into this problem now because of this whole issue with asbestos removal in residential buildings,” Gutonski said.
Still, it’s a rule that makes sense for the people of Allegheny County. The second-most populous county in Pennsylvania, just behind Philadelphia County, it has the highest asbestos-related mortality rate in the state and, in turn, the state has the third-highest asbestos-related mortality rate in the country.
The high numbers are attributed to Allegheny County’s industrial past (and present), namely its connection with the steel-making industry, which used asbestos abundantly.
No one wants those ominous numbers to continue to increase when they should be on a downward slope, given the fact that most asbestos use was halted around 1980. That’s why the EPA rules governing asbestos removal procedures for municipalities have been put in place and will likely remain.
“You don’t look at this in the mindset of it costs more to do this,” said Jim Kelly, deputy director of the Bureau of Environmental Health for Allegheny County.
“This is what it takes to protect public health from asbestos.”