Peggy Dennis enjoys gardening in her yard on Fawsett Road. What she doesn’t enjoy is breathing Fawsett Road.
“Every time a car or truck goes by, unless it’s wet, we get clouds of dust going up,” she said. “The dust is going up 30, 40 feet.”
Fawsett is a gently curving quarter mile of gravel that curves down from MacArthur Boulevard to a cul de sac. A developer dedicated the right-of-way to the county more than 40 years ago, but because the road doesn’t meet county standards, it isn’t publicly maintained. Residents have spent decades trying to convince officials to pave the road and take over maintenance.
The county has said that residents would have to foot the bill for paving the road to county standards, and over the years the price tag has grown. But Dennis thinks the dust clouds give residents some new leverage. She hired an environmental contractor to analyze four samples of dust from the gravel road. All four tested positive for asbestos.
“MY CONSIDERATION is … Is this dust dangerous?” Dennis said.
That’s not clear. The tests Dennis commissioned show the presence of chrysotile asbestos, but not its concentration, in the samples. While chronic exposure to asbestos has been linked to lung cancer, cancer of the chest cavity and other respiratory diseases, research has not established what constitutes a safe level of exposure.
Federal and state regulation of asbestos centers on abatement and containment practices in construction and manufacturing, where products containing asbestos are often used. When the health risks associated with workplace exposure — and with some consumer products like insulation material — began to emerge in the 1970s and '80s — asbestos became a term associated with industrial malfeasance.
In fact, asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral, present in several types of rock, including the serpentine rock that underlies much of Potomac. The fiber-like microscopic structure that makes it useful in manufacturing is also what makes it harmful to humans, but only when tiny particles are inhaled. Trying to eliminate it from the environment would be like trying to eliminate iron or quartz.
According to a Maryland Department of Environment fact sheet, “Asbestos is everywhere: in the air, soil and water. … We know that everyone is exposed during his life to some asbestos,” but the people who become sick are those who have regularly breathed asbestos fibers over a prolonged period of time.
Does that include Dennis?
“THERE IS NOT enough data … to determine if there is any cause for concern,” said Richard McIntire, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Environment. “We have no idea what is a safe level and what isn’t. It’s really in a fairly large gray area at this point.”
McIntire said that the Department of Environment commissioned three studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s to determine whether residents near Rockville Crushed Stone — the quarry provides the gravel for Fawsett Road — had an elevated risk of asbestos-related illness.
“There was no increased harm or increased level or cancers or increased level of respiratory illness,” McIntire said.
But even the potential of long-term health hazards should justify putting an end to the protracted battle over paving Fawsett, Dennis said.
Fawsett residents almost unanimously support paving the road, but say they have received a variety of unpalatable responses from the county. At first they were told that paving the road could cost $200,000 or more and that the county would oversee bids, contracting and construction, but that residents would have to pay off the bond over time.
Several years later, Department of Public Works and Transportation officials delivered even worse news: before it could consider any such project, it would need to inventory all of the roads like Fawcett — publicly owned but not maintained. That would cost $250,000. The cost for paving Fawsett had ballooned to close to $800,000.
With those kinds of costs in mind, Dennis had little reservation shelling out about $1,000 to pay for the sampling and lab analysis last month. She and other Fawsett residents had heard of other Potomac roads — Kendale Road and Fox Meadow Lane — being paved because of asbestos.
“We thought maybe this is our salvation,” she said.
INSTEAD, DENNIS has created what she called a political “hot potato” — something no agency wants to touch for very long.
McIntire said that the Department of Environment does not have jurisdiction over Dennis’ issue.
“We are open to working with the community. We are open to working with the county. … [But] we can only make recommendations,” he said. “MDE has no authority over roads, and naturally occurring asbestos is a county issue.”
Tom Pogue, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Works and Transportation said that he’s also aware of the asbestos concerns, but that DPWT staff ”determined that that is under the jurisdiction of the Maryland Department of Environment.”
As for the question of paving Fawsett, Pogue confirmed that the county is committed to taking inventory of unimproved roads.
“We’ve received estimates that there could be as many as 300 miles of that type of road in the county,” he said. The inventory study is now funded under the county’s Capital Improvements Program and is expected to begin in within two years.
With that information, DPWT would develop a set of policies and procedures by which to prioritize the paving projects and, in some cases, subsidize or cover the cost to citizens.
Legal and technical issues abound in planning improvements to roads like Fawsett, Pogue said. Communities are sometimes divided over whether they want the paving at all. Parts of the road lie under various covenants. Runoff from the new pavement can pose problems, since development around many old roads preceded stormwater management rules.
“How do we handle situations like that?” he said. “We have to develop some procedures that will equitably and logically handle those kinds of issues.”
Dennis’ asbestos evidence could bolster Fawsett’s case, especially if an agency or politician takes up the issue.
But Pogue stressed that, so far, only the study is funded — not the eventual construction projects.