I-Team: Who’s monitoring asbestos levels?

Researchers seek funding for asbestos study_48048698-159532

Which public agencies are keeping an eye on asbestos fibers generated by a massive highway project? The I-11 Bypass is being built right through the heart of natural asbestos fields in southern Nevada, but it’s not always clear which government entities should be monitoring potential health risks.

Nevada doesn’t have any standards or regulations for naturally occurring asbestos, so in the case of the highway project, the oversight is mostly in the hands of private contractors.

So, how are things going, and how much asbestos is getting into the air we breathe? The only Nevada laws which regulate asbestos exposure are the ones which focus on asbestos in buildings, such as old hotels being imploded.

The contractors working on the I-11 Bypass spent a year learning about how to mitigate natural asbestos, mostly so they could protect their own employees. Protecting the rest of us is mostly beyond the scope of private companies, but the same is true for the public agencies involved in this gargantuan undertaking.

Millions of tons of rock and soil are being plowed, blasted and leveled to make way for the I-11 Bypass near Boulder City. A project this big inevitably generates dust, clouds of it, not only from dynamite and gigantic machines, but also from simply driving a pickup through the job site. But, what’s in that dust?

“We’re the guinea pigs out here. We don’t know what potential exposure we can have on a construction project, so this is new ground,” said Fisher Company Asbestos Manager Doug Laquey.

The reason Laquey feels like a guinea pig is because the bypass project is the first in Nevada history to deal with the risks posed by natural asbestos. There have been other major roadways built through the heart of asbestos fields. The difference is no one knew it.

Because it can take many years for asbestos diseases to develop, workers who subsequently became sick or died likely never knew the source of their illness. When it comes to asbestos, there is one inescapable fact.

“The more exposure you have, the greater potential you have for disease down the road,” Laquey said.

Because federal dollars are building the highway, OSHA standards must be met to protect workers.

The best protection is water. Huge water trucks routinely spray the worksite, and smaller sprayers are deployed where needed. Because of all the spraying, Laquey says the air around the bypass has less asbestos now than it did before millions of tons of dirt were disturbed. He says a year of using individual air monitors on employees shows not a single employee has received a dangerous dose.

OSHA standards, however, do not protect the larger public. When invisible asbestos fibers get kicked into the air as dust particles, they can float for miles.

Two Nevada agencies, the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Commission, are tasked with overseeing air monitors positioned on the outskirts of the project to find out if fugitive asbestos fibers are spreading outside the job site. Contractors gather and analyze the data, and results are occasionally posted online, but does anyone in the two agencies look at the material?

“The question we’ve had from day one is who is doing oversight?” said UNLV geologist Dr. Brenda Buck. “There are no laws on NOA (naturally occurring asbestos) in the state of Nevada, especially in Clark County. So, what if they exceed their levels? What will happen and who will know?”

Residents of Boulder City have raised serious doubts about whether anyone is paying attention to the asbestos data. In a letter sent a few months ago, RTC General Manager Tina Quigley said the Clark County Air Quality Office is in charge of monitoring asbestos in the dust.

The head of that department says that is not true, saying, “We do not monitor or regulate NOA, naturally occurring asbestos.”

Laquey says he talks about asbestos data several times a week with NDOT officials assigned to the job. In a year, they’ve had several days during which asbestos levels exceeded the permissible levels, mostly because of high winds. On those days, they often shut down early. 

In all likelihood, the source of the asbestos fibers picked up by the monitors is not the bypass project, but rather, it’s the asbestos-infested playa in the El Dorado Valley, where a racetrack and several gravel pits kick up huge clouds of dust.

“We’ve got a construction project, but we’ve got a lot of things around us that have the potential to stir up dust also,” Laquey said.

It’s been a gray area about which agency should handle which monitoring jobs, but it looks like RTC and NDOT are sharing assignments. Both have full-time employees assigned to monitor asbestos data, though private contractors do most of the hands-on work.

The contractors have stepped up to the plate on asbestos safety, though there isn’t much they can do about clouds of dangerous dust stirred up in the El Dorado Valley by high winds or off-roaders.

Ominously, there are plans in the works to build neighborhoods in the middle of that valley, with no asbestos regulations whatsoever.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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