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Owens’s first bill of 2013 draws criticism

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CANTON — U.S. Rep. William L. Owens’s first piece of legislation introduced this year is so far drawing more criticism than support.

The “Common Sense Waiver Act” is designed to relieve local governments of some of the financial burdens associated with tearing down condemned buildings.

“If you go through any town in New York, in virtually any place in the country, there are these structures that (local governments) really can’t afford to take down because the owner has abandoned them,” said Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

One of the largest hurdles preventing municipalities from acting on these buildings is “a requirement that you go in and do a full-blown asbestos abatement before you take the building down,” Mr. Owens said.

This requirement is set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The bill would allow localities to bypass this regulation for buildings that are in imminent danger of collapsing.

“What we hope people will do is go in, appropriately wrap the asbestos and take it to an asbestos disposal site. That could be done by a noncertified person. That’s really the goal,” Mr. Owens said.

He said too often these buildings are too expensive for local governments to clean up responsibly. Some eventually collapse on their own, at which point the EPA intervenes.

“Everyone is worse off if you let the building collapse,” Mr. Owens said, adding that collapsing buildings release asbestos into the environment.

Critics of Mr. Owens’s bill say worker safety is more important.

Toby W. Bogart, superintendent of highways and director of the St. Lawrence County Solid Waste Department, said he agrees removing asbestos under the current regulations can be cost prohibitive, but the health risks associated with asbestos are too high to risk unsafe handling.

One contractor in the field had a blunt reaction to the idea of skipping full asbestos abatement.

“I think that’s a really bad idea,” said Peter J. Delucia, safety director at AAC Contracting in Rochester.

AAC Contracting has a satellite office in Waddington and provides asbestos abatement services.

“Asbestos is a known carcinogen,” Mr. Delucia said. “You could be exposing the workers and the public to asbestos. You wouldn’t want just any contractor with an excavator to go knock down a house.”

Mr. Owens said his proposal so far has been “essentially ignored” by EPA officials.

While the EPA declined to comment for this story, it has responded to Mr. Owens in at least three letters, according to Elias Rodriguez, press officer.

In a letter sent to Mr. Owens on Dec. 14, Region 2 Administrator Judith A. Enck said, “Asbestos is a cancer-causing substance that must be handled properly to protect people’s health.”

Moreover, the EPA does not have the authority to go into structures to clean up asbestos.

“While we understand your concerns about potential exposure to asbestos, there is no mechanism that allows the EPA to waive federal requirements for the proper handling of asbestos,” Ms. Enck said in the letter.

“I understand the fiscal burden this places on things,” Mr. Delucia said of the requirement that certified people remove asbestos from buildings. “In my view you can’t discount the view that it can negatively impact people’s health. I think too often we put dollars and cents over people’s health.”

Mr. Owens said he has not picked up a lot of support for the bill yet, but hopes to collect bipartisan co-sponsors over the coming weeks.

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