Aging Pipes Containing Asbestos Present Unique Set Of Regulatory Challenges

By Dr. John Matthews and Dr. Sai Vaidya | July 2014, Vol. 69 No. 7

What’s one of the biggest barriers to maintaining the nation’s water infrastructure? Adequate funding, of course – many municipalities struggle to find enough resources to support their maintenance projects. But there’s another obstacle and it’s related to asbestos.

Roughly 200,000 miles of asbestos cement (AC) water mains were installed from the 1940s to the 1970s, primarily in the western and southern United States. Steel was in short supply in the 1940s because it was diverted to airplane and ship-building factories during World War II. At the same time, the suburbs were growing rapidly and new water infrastructure was needed to serve these areas. Civil engineers needed to find other materials that would hold up as well as iron or steel. They found that an asbestos-silica-cement composite was structurally strong and very durable, lasting 50 to 80 years. It was embraced by engineers and municipalities across the United States.

Experts estimate that about 15 percent of all potable water mains currently in use contain asbestos cement. On the West Coast, where the population grew rapidly in the post-war era, AC pipe makes up as much as 20 percent of all water mains and even more than 50 percent in some municipalities. Many of these mains are reaching the end of their lifespan but replacing them isn’t that simple. Regulations governing the replacement and disposal of AC pipe are unclear. Regulatory bodies often don’t agree on the removal and disposal methods of AC pipe. Moreover, there is no data that will give them the confidence to make more definitive rules governing AC pipe removal. Currently, the disposal of AC pipe falls under EPA’s guidelines which state that any broken or crushed AC pipe is a regulated material under the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP), the same regulation that governs the removal of asbestos materials in buildings such as wall insulation and ceiling tiles.

Lack of guidelines

EPA’s guidelines do not provide explicit procedures on how to handle broken AC pipe. Instead, it entrusts state and regional agencies with enforcing disposal regulations and these agencies are often not aligned on the issue. Regulations can even vary within a state and within local or regional agencies. For instance, regulation of AC pipe in California falls under 19 different agencies, all of which differ in their stringency.