U.S. asbestos rules foil land banks

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U.S. asbestos rules foil land banks

July 30, 2012 [Columbus Dispatch]

Federal interpretations of regulations on asbestos removal are hampering efforts by cities to tear down scores of vacant and abandoned homes in Ohio, land-bank officials say.

The cost of demolitions has risen 40 percent in Cuyahoga County, said Cheryl Stephens, the acquisition director for the land bank there. And delays have stretched as long as 90 days, said Jim Rokakis, the director of Cleveland’s Thriving Communities Institute, which helps communities set up land banks to acquire and deal with abandoned and vacant properties.

As a result, land banks “are getting killed,” Rokakis said. “Where a surgeon’s scalpel makes sense, (federal officials are) using a meat cleaver.”

Staff members for both of Ohio’s senators, Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Sherrod Brown, said they are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to address the high costs without jeopardizing residents’ health. Last week, officials from Ohio land banks spoke via conference call to U.S. EPA representatives, trying to find a compromise.

The problem is that federal officials are interpreting the rules in such a way that land banks must assess every house for asbestos if it is part of a larger urban-renewal project, said Franklin County Treasurer Ed Leonard, who oversees the county’s new land bank. It doesn’t make sense to spend precious dollars on asbestos assessments when officials already know that a house doesn’t have any because of when it was built, he said.

Linda Oros, an Ohio EPA spokeswoman, said the rules are in place to protect workers and neighbors from asbestos hazards, which include lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The U.S. EPA is working with federal, state and local officials to address concerns, spokesman Dale Kemery wrote in an email.

Ohio has an estimated 100,000 vacant and abandoned houses in cities large and small because of decades of urban flight, deindustrialization and the recent foreclosure crisis. Columbus has more than 6,200 such houses, and Mayor Michael B. Coleman has pledged to demolish 900 over the next four years, using $11.5 million in city funds.

Franklin County’s land bank, run by the Central Ohio Community Improvement Corp., recently received $8.2 million from Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office, part of the $75 million the state received in a national settlement with mortgage companies.

About 35 to 50 percent of home-demolition costs in Columbus go toward asbestos assessment and removal, said Nichole Brandon, the deputy development director. That limits the number of homes the city can tear down, she said.

One way to compromise would be to exempt one- to four-family homes from asbestos assessments, Rokakis said. In Cuyahoga County, for example, only 4 percent of those houses were “hot” with asbestos.

Too much money is being used for unnecessary testing, agreed Michael Beazley, the president of the land bank in Lucas County, home to Toledo.

“We’re looking to have the EPA identify some ways to lower costs for the community,” Beazley said.

In Lima in northwestern Ohio, the price to demolish one home rose from $5,000 to $23,000 because of the asbestos regulations, said Howard Elstro, that city’s director of public works.

That limits Lima’s ability to tear down more homes, especially as federal neighborhood-stabilization dollars have run out, Elstro said.

If federal officials agree to a compromise, the Franklin County land bank will still address environmental hazards when necessary, Leonard said.