Old fossil fuel infrastructure is packed with asbestos

If the U.S. is to meet its climate goals, it will likely have to switch from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas to renewables like wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar energy. That will leave the country with a great deal of legacy fossil fuel  infrastructure to dismantle, and that won’t be easy or cheap. The Tennessee Valley Authority has been grappling with this very issue for years now as it either transitions some of its older fossil fuel plants away from coal, shuts them down, or gets rid of them entirely (like TVA did with the former Widows Creek Steam Plant).

Much of this infrastructure contains asbestos materials, which will require expert abatement. That abatement will take years and could put tens of thousands of workers at risk for asbestos exposure and diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma.

In Philadelphia, for example, a 1,400-acre oil refinery site is being redeveloped into new commercial buildings. According to Reuters, the redevelopment will take at least a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, it will require the developers to address 150 years’ worth of industrial pollution, including waste fuels and asbestos.

The Philadelphia refinery is one of approximately 135 refineries around the country, but the entire infrastructure related to oil and gas refining is filled with asbestos components. That includes gas stations, storage hubs, pipelines, drill pads and other old infrastructure.

The specialty developer that bought the Philadelphia site has ample experience in renovating industrial properties. It estimates that asbestos abatement alone at the site will take four years.

“There’s enough pipeline to connect you from here to Florida, and the majority of that pipeline today is wrapped in asbestos,” said the developer’s CEO.

It’s uncertain just how much pollution needs to be cleaned up on the site. Its previous owner, Sunoco Inc., went years without holding mandatory city meetings about the pollution, according to Reuters. It’s also unclear how much liability Sunoco or other prior players will have for the cleanup.

Asbestos everywhere, gasoline routinely dumped on the ground

Besides the asbestos problem, the refinery is soaked through with petroleum waste. It began operating in 1870, when gasoline was considered a worthless byproduct of heating oil and was routinely dumped on the property.

The approximately four years of asbestos abatement will take place first. Next comes the demolition and removal of about 3,000 tanks and other vessels, which could also contain asbestos. Then, 100 buildings and assorted infrastructure – again, with the possibility of asbestos – must be torn down.

Only then will the developer address the polluted ground, which also contains giant benzene pools underground.

The full remediation and rebuilding of the site could take 15 years and support around 13,000 jobs. Many of those will be in asbestos abatement.

As the asbestos abatement moves forward, Philadelphia officials also need to focus on the possibility that nearby residents could be exposed. According to the EPA, there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos removal is a necessary and important part of redeveloping old job sites. In Tennessee and beyond, every worker who participates in that removal and everyone else who could be exposed to asbestos deserves to be protected from exposure.

The volume of asbestos needing to be removed from the sites and the time it takes to do so are indicators of how much asbestos and asbestos-containing products were used on these old fossil fuel facilities. In that light, it is easy to see why so many people who used to work at those facilities, when they were either being constructed or were operational, later developed asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis.

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