RJ Lee Group Joins PACNY Amid Conversations on NYS Vermiculite Regulations

We’re here today with Don Ewert, one of RJ Lee Group’s Industrial Hygienists and the person responsible for the provision of Occupational Health services.

Q:    Don, you are the de facto professional liaison with PACNY – the Professional Abatement Contractors of New York. How were you chosen for that role?

Although I’m the one who usually communicates with PACNY members, this is actually a team effort that involves our analytical leadership, Dr. Matt Sanchez, and our senior support staff: Marsha Hess, Allison Murtha and Jerome Schafer. Without everyone’s active participation, it wouldn’t be possible to provide our technical and analytical services to PACNY members. There are simply too many moving parts for one person alone.

Q:    As the team member most actively in direct communication with PACNY, how does your previous experience support that role?

Well, about 30 years ago, when asbestos and resulting asbestos litigation were of increasing concern, a group of us from North Dakota State University (NDSU) established a company called HTI Laboratories and Industrial Consultants. We soon became the lead as an expert in the area of asbestos—very similar to what Rich Lee had done several years earlier. Our success led us to develop new technologies for asbestos analysis which still remain in existence today. Those early years were pretty exciting, but eventually, I wandered out on my own and built an organization specializing in asbestos removal operations. Managing abatement projects exposed me to all the intricate regulatory details of the abatement process and I learned how to deal with them. Eventually I returned to graduate school, gained some new Occupational Health skills, all of which led to the role in which I’ve served for the last 15 years—EH&S management.

Then, last year, Dr. Lee made me an offer. Interestingly, Rich is also a native of North Dakota and one of its earliest asbestos pioneers. As such, he recognized that with the experience I bring, it made sense for me to be a key part of the Vermiculite Initiative and to take a lead role in overseeing our outreach campaign.

Q:    RJ Lee Group recently became a member of PACNY and this will be the company’s first time attending their annual conference. What made the company decide to participate now?

In a word—vermiculite. In the three years since New York issued its first vermiculite guidance to state-accredited labs, testing firms have found themselves tasked with a rare responsibility. Never before, has the laboratory community been responsible for monitoring regulatory compliance in the field. NYS DOH eventually settled on a set of rules requiring that prior to disturbance, all spray-on fireproofing (SOF-V) materials must first undergo an assessment of their vermiculite content. After that, samples made up primarily of vermiculite, like attic and wall insulation, must be reported as regulated asbestos and those materials determined to be SOF-V must undergo testing by one of two methods approved by the NYS DOH. RJ Lee Group’s LAB.055.1 was the first proprietary method approved by NYS DOH in July 2014, and Item 198.8 is the state-developed method approved afterwards.

The major difference between these two techniques involves how the sample is prepared and the types of microscopy used for asbestos identification. Our method, LAB.055.1 chemically dissolves the vermiculite then uses both scanning electron microscopy and polarized light microscopy, while 198.8 physically separates the vermiculite component and uses limited light microscopy techniques making it unable to differentiate regulated from non-regulated types of asbestos. The problem here is that the state method can lead to overestimating the amount of regulated asbestos which exists.

So, we’ve been conducting our outreach campaign to make contractors and other laboratories aware of our method. As luck would have it, PACNY contacted our senior scientist, Dr. Matt Sanchez, last October, and asked him to give a presentation at this year’s conference. We jumped at the chance! We felt that PACNY was the best venue through which we could bring awareness of LAB.055.1 to the abatement community. RJ Lee Group now supports PACNY as a member as well as a sponsor.

Q:    So, why did RJ Lee Group develop an analysis method even though there was already a method approved by NYSDOH?

Actually, until LAB.055.1 was approved, there wasn’t a state-certified method available for the analysis of SOF-V. As I said previously, the state required that any fireproofing having a vermiculite component had to be classified as asbestos-containing material (ACM). This was a tremendous burden for property owners who had previously inspected their SOF and who had data showing these materials to be asbestos-free. Fortunately, an intense lobbying effort did convince the state to change its position and in July of 2013, the state issued a regulation which allowed analysis of SOF-V but only with a caveat that the results report the method as inconclusive and likely to have underestimated the amount of asbestos which exists.

Q:    Why should a contractor choose one of the approved methods over the other?

There’s a good possibility that if a simultaneous analysis of the same SOF-V were performed using both LAB.055.1 and Item 198.8, both techniques would show asbestos in their reports. The difference, however, is that LAB.055.1 will likely report that the amphibole species observed are unregulated types of asbestos, while Item 198.8 is unable to differentiate the species and will report only a total amphibole asbestos value without indicating whether it is regulated or non-regulated. What this means is that they can’t tell the difference between the non-regulated and regulated amphiboles. Why is this important to the contractor? For the vast majority of contractors, client retention is a key to their business and I believe that, to keep their customers, contractors need to have the owners’ interests at hand. By recommending LAB.055.1 to their clients as the preferred analysis method, they allow the property owners an opportunity to determine for themselves how to proceed, knowing the amount of regulated asbestos that is present in their samples.

Q:    What does RJ Lee Group hope to accomplish by being present at PACNY?

We’ve been reaching out to industry in New York State for the last six months or so, to those who make the decisions for the analytical work required by these new regulations. We want them to be aware that there is an alternative to the Item 198.8 state method. We hope to inform those attending the conference that not only is LAB.055.1 an approved method for analyzing SOF-V but a technique which is actually capable of exempting the materials from OSHA regulation where the action level is 0.1%. We understand that the conference is not a large venue, but we feel by participating and presenting, by sponsoring the event, we have the opportunity not only to introduce ourselves to those attending, but also to let members know that there is more than one approved analytical method available.

Q:    PACNY is dealing with this vermiculite issue, which is local for them. Do you envision other localities/states regulating analysis for vermiculite in building insulation and fireproofing?

Well, I’ve been around the block a few times relative to this subject and I think that most state agencies are awaiting the outcome of New York’s efforts. If these regulations withstand scrutiny and remain in place over the next 2-3 years, it’s likely that some other states will join in this process. Most likely, however, states will wait to see what the cost-benefit impact is on the regulated community, and given everything thus far, I consider it unlikely that they will retain the rules for SOF-V. As news develops, I’ll keep interested parties informed about it on RJ Lee Group’s blog.

Q:    Going forward, what do you see as RJ Lee Group’s role in the building/construction industry?

RJ Lee Group was founded as a materials characterization and consulting laboratory. We continue to develop and expand our capabilities daily. We see expanding the vermiculite analysis techniques we’ve talked about to accommodate other materials. I, personally, have been asked to support occupational health offerings, expanding our industrial hygiene lab and field sampling services. We hope to introduce a range of program management services in occupational, environmental, health and safety services. Related projects include the packaging and marketing of our silica analysis techniques to the energy and mining communities to help them both recognize and mitigate what continues to be a major occupational exposure issue. So, as you can see, there’s a lot going on.

Q:    Well, thank you, Don, you’ve opened up some conversation topics and given us some food for thought. Hopefully, by attending, you can provide attendees at the PACNY conference with more in-depth discussions.

Thanks for the opportunity to discuss our interest in PACNY and our analytical method, LAB.055.1. While I’ve hopefully answered your questions, I know we’re skimming the surface here and there are many more questions remaining. I hope that those attending the conference will feel free to come up and introduce themselves and discuss whatever concerns or questions they may have, with me, or the other RJ Lee Group attendees.