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Howard coal-tar sealant ban would hurt companies, executives say

A bill being considered by the Howard County Council to ban coal-tar pavement sealants and some alternatives is being criticized by businessmen who fear a ban might inspire neighboring Baltimore County to enact similar legislation, leading to the demise of their companies.

The bill to prohibit sales and use of the sealants was introduced by Councilman Jon Weinstein at the behest of 16 fifth-graders from Centennial Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City. The students did research on coal-tar and asked the councilman to consider the health and environmental risks from the thick, black liquid.

Neighboring Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties, and Washington, D.C., have all banned the material.

Coal-tar and its alternatives contain varying amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, linked to skin irritations, mutations and cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. The substance is said to also be dangerous to aquatic animals when it runs in to waterways, according to Barbara Mahler, a United States Geological Survey hydrologist.

In addition to the outright ban of the substance, the Howard County bill also proposes prohibiting the sale of alternative sealants that contain 0.1 percent PAH.

This additional threshold, if adopted in future Baltimore County legislation, could threaten the livelihood of the companies SealMaster, which has locations throughout the U.S., and GemSeal, a North Carolina-based company, because it eliminates the potential for the company sell coal-tar and alternatives that have significantly reduced PAH levels.

SealMaster President Tom Decker was critical of the claim that sealants have created health problems in Howard County.

“They’re trying to get rid of a problem that doesn’t exist,” Decker said after he testified at a public hearing on the bill in Ellicott City this week.

Decker, who has worked around the products for 21 years, in an email said that if he believed there was a “remote chance” he, his children or workers would fall ill from exposure, he “would not be manufacturing coal tar pavement sealer.”

GemSeal Regional Manager Chris Mariani traveled nearly 1,000 miles from Tampa, Fla., to testify for three minutes. Mariani said the company’s insurers have not found a substantiated claim linking coal-tar to employee illness.

Mariani, in an interview, said that the company supplies sealer that contains less than 0.7 percent PAH levels to clients in Austin, Texas, the first U.S. city to adopt a coal-tar ban.

Mariani in an email said the company’s White Marsh plant would loose nearly 40 percent of product output if a similar bill to were to be enacted in Baltimore County — which would force the plant to close or leave Maryland.

Howard County’s Department of Public Works said it does not rely on coal-tar sealant or its alternatives to repair parking lots and roads. The substance is often used to patch commercial parking lots and residential driveways.

Six of the Centennial Lane students who worked on the research given to Weinstein in the spring made a presentation to the County Council at its legislative hearing Monday night.

Sophia Vecerek, 12, said in an interview that the group is “not adults. We’re still children.”

“We didn’t really think we could all do this. It’s really fun,” Sophia said.

In a letter to the editor published in today’s Howard County Times, the executive director of the Pavement Coatings Technology Council, a trade group, said the Geological Survey relied on “faulty claims” and offered to work with the students and County Council “to learn how to evaluate science-based claims based on scientific evidence.”

The County Council is scheduled to vote on the bill Oct. 1.

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