September 26

The federal agency in charge of protecting human health and the environment caused a threat in both of those areas while experimenting with a relatively new method for asbestos control, according to a watchdog report released Thursday.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general said the EPA overlooked violations of environmental law and disregarded research guidance while studying an alternative approach to demolishing asbestos-containing buildings.

“This resulted in wasted resources and the potential exposure of workers and the public to unsafe levels of asbestos,” the report said.

Auditors found that the research also lacked proper oversight or even an agreed-to goal. The project cost about $3.5 million for contracting, staff time and other expenses between 2004 and 2012.

“The high-dollar cost, potential public health risks, and failure of the [alternative method] to provide reliable data and results are management-control problems that need to be addressed,” the report said.

Asbestos is a human carcinogen. Exposure to the fibers, which were once commonly used for insulation, can cause deadly health problems such as lung cancer and mesothelioma.

EPA standards require trained technicians to remove asbestos from buildings before demolition in order to prevent the fibers from entering the air. But the agency wanted to test an alternative method: Wetting materials before and during the wrecking-and-removal process. The technique is already allowed for buildings that are on the verge of collapse.

The EPA research came as part of an nearly 20-year old initiative to find innovative and better approaches for protecting the environment and public health. In this case, the project backfired.

Auditors said the EPA “did not adequately address health and environmental issues,” adding that “key decisions on health and safety issues … were allowed to go unresolved.” The agency used its enforcement discretion to ignore violations of environmental law to support the experiment, according to the report.

The inspector general recommended that the EPA require its research to follow controlled processes. The agency agreed with the proposals and has already completed many of them.

“We continually are improving our research protocols and processes to achieve the highest possible scientific standards to protect the American public and our environment,” EPA press secretary Liz Purchia said in a statement. “We have made significant changes to our research planning process to require that all research includes oversight procedures and input from senior managers.”

The EPA has not approved the alternative asbestos-control method, and the agency will not use it as part of its standards for emissions and air pollutants, Purchia said.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.