Legislation to ban coal tar sealants introduced

April 24, 2012  

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A City scientist collects a sample of paving sealant from a parking lot in Southwest Travis County. Tests showed it was not coal tar, which has a blacker, shinier look than the grey surface above.

By Tony Tucci

Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) has introduced legislation that would ban the manufacture, distribution and sale of coal tar sealants, a pavement resurfacing material that contains chemicals that pollute our water, cause mutations and birth defects in aquatic life, and have been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable cause of cancer in humans.

If passed, the manufacture of coal tar sealants would be prohibited in one year, the distribution would be illegal in 18 months, and sales would be illegal in two years.  Passage of the bill would culminate a six-year battle that began in 2006 when the city of Austin became the first community to ban coal tar. Since then, numerous communities and the state of Washington have banned coal tar, and retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot have pulled it from their shelves.

Other communities that have followed Austin’s lead are the District of Columbia; Madison, Wisc.;  Suffolk County, N.Y.; Dane County, Wisc.; the state of Washington; and 15 communities in Minnesota.

“Although other local communities have taken action, we cannot wait for all other communities simply to catch up to Austin,” Doggett said in his bill. “That is why I have introduced the Coal Tar Sealants Reduction Act. This legislation would phase out these coal tar-based sealants nationwide. Alternative products are already on the marketplace.”

Doggett was joined by legislators from Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, and Massachusetts — all states where communities have questioned the effects of coal tar on human health — as well as the nation’s major environmental advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club.

They cited research by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) that shows:

  • Coal tar contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) “which are probable human carcinogens, having been identified as such by the Environmental Protection Agency,” which are “toxic to aquatic life” and “present in pavement sealants, known as sealcoats, made from coal tar.”
  • Coal tar sealants are widely used on parking lot surfaces, airport runways, and driveways.
  • Research conducted by the USGS indicates that elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons on parking lots, where the dust may be tracked into homes and increase health risks, are associated with use of these coal tar sealants.”
  • Research conducted by the USGS indicates that elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in waterways, where they are toxic to aquatic life and enter the food chain, are associated with use of these coal tar sealants.”
  • “Alternative, coal tar-free sealants are available in the marketplace, and nationwide retailers Lowe’s and Home Depot have voluntarily committed to cease carrying coal tar sealants.”
  • Austin, TX, was the first municipality to enact a ban on the use of coal tar sealants, which went into effect in 2006, and other local governments have instated similar restrictions.
  • “in 2011, Washington State became the first State to enact such a ban.”

Other legislators who have signed H.R. 4166 The Coal Tar Sealant Reduction Act of 2012 are Congressman Jim McDermott (D-Washingtom, 7th District); Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota 5th District); Congressman Mike Quigley (D-Illinois 5th District), and Congressman Bill Keating (D-Massachusetts 10th District.

Doggett’s staff said the congressman was planning a press conference to announce the bill and declined to comment at this time. However, he was quoted in a Sierra Club newsletter as saying, “In 2003 when Austin officials raised initial concerns about the environmental and health impact of coal tar sealants used on playgrounds, parking lots, and other paved surfaces with me, I contacted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) several times. In 2005, I was pleased that city government took action to ban coal tar sealants. Other communities, however, have not been as diligent in protecting their citizens from these substances. These pollutants not only get washed into local waterways after a rainfall, but can be tracked into our homes simply as dust on the soles of our shoes. Communities are threatened elsewhere in Texas and across the Nation.”

Coal tar has been a controversial subject since shortly after the turn of the century. The city passed its ban in 2005, becoming one of the first cities in the nation to do so.

Just recently the Austin school district decided to begin removing coal tar from school playgrounds. The older coal tar actually is more dangerous because it crumbles and flakes and can be washed into our waterways and tracked into our homes and cars. Children are the most vulnerable because they play on the ground and then put their hands in their mouths.

An online petition drive has been started to support a nationwide ban. Those who want to sign the petition should go to http://forcechange.com/15718/support-a-nationwide-ban-on-toxic-coal-tar/.

Doggett said there is “compelling scientific literature” to warrant a nationwide ban. He said coal tar not only causes mutations and birth defects in aquatic life, but has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen.

“The Coal Tar Sealants Reduction Act is common sense legislation that will benefit our ecosystem and the health of Texans and other Americans,” he said.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Carmody, an award-winning environmental reporter who first recognized the danger of coal tar sealants. His legacy lives on.

 


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