Coal tar sealants allowed to remain in Virginia after bill is struck down
This story was published in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University's Capital News Service.
Lawmakers last month killed legislation which would give localities the option to ban the use of coal tar pavement sealant, a product which environmental and health agencies say can negatively impact aquatic and human life.
A House of Delegates subcommittee voted 5-4 to table House Bill 949, sponsored by Del. Kathy K. L. Tran (D-Fairfax).
The original bill aimed to ban the sealant statewide, but an amendment gave localities the option to ban it instead. Violators of the law would have paid a $250 fine.
Coal tar based sealant is a viscous black liquid sprayed or painted on top of asphalt pavement. It typically contains 20-35% coal tar or coal tar pitch, which can cause canceraccording to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Critics of the bill say the ban is not necessary, while proponents argue it could protect human and aquatic life from dangerous chemicals.
Joe Wood, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, supported the bill. He said giving localities the option to ban coal tar sealants wouldn’t negatively impact anyone.
“You get reduced cancer for kids and people, cleaner waterways, less fish with cancer and better oysters,” Wood said. “There are other products that are basically the same price that work just as well.”
Del. Tony Wilt (R-Rockingham) voted to table the bill despite introducing the same legislation in 2018. He was hesitant to move forward with Tran’s bill after talking with the Department of Environmental Quality about the sealant’s environmental impact, Wilt stated in an email.
“Their contribution to the pollution levels in our waterways was not as significant as most other issues,” Wilt stated.
Wilt heard various concerns in 2018 as to why a coal tar sealant ban might not be “appropriate or necessary policy,” and stated that he “voluntarily pulled the bill and decided not to move forward.”
Someone living next to pavement sealed with coal tar is 38 times more likely to get cancer, and much of that risk occurs during early childhood, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.
Coal tar pitch is a source of a chemical called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, or PAH, which has been used to seal the asphalt pavement of parking lots, driveways and playgrounds, according to the USGS and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Coal tar sealant wears off over time from friction with vehicle tires. This produces a fine dust that causes the particles to be washed off by rain into water bodies, blown into the air or tracked into homes, according to the USGS.
Exposure to PAHs, along with other contributing circumstances, can also cause DNA damage and reduced IQ in children, according to peer-reviewed studies.
Robb Archie, a third-generation sealant industry contractor from Nevada, who has worked with coal tar for decades, supports the bill. Archie developed a PAH-free asphalt emulsion seal coat formula. He said he has addressed similar pavement sealant bills in other state legislatures.
“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Archie said. “This is about humanity.”
The chemicals have been found in oysters in the Lafayette River in Norfolk for years, though cleanup efforts have reduced the concentrations of chemical contaminants. Past industrial use of creosote — a wood preservative derived from coal tar — along the Elizabeth River, which splits Norfolk from Portsmouth, contributed to high concentrations of the chemical, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Elevated levels of cancer in killifish have also been linked to PAH contamination in the river, according to the 2020 State of the Elizabeth River Scorecard. The chemicals are serious contaminants to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) commended Tran for bringing the bill to the committee's attention.
“Just reading more about it and hearing more about it, it’s kind of shocking and disturbing at best,” Filler-Corn said during the committee meeting.
Brett Vassey, CEO of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, opposed the bill. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not include coal tar based pavement products in its 14th report on carcinogens, Vassey said during the meeting. The HHS currently lists coal tar and coal tar pitches as carcinogens.
Vassey added that this would be the first time Virginia ever delegated a scientific decision on the sale of a commercially and legally allowable product to a local government.
Washington, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. banned the sale of pavement sealants that contain coal tar, as have cities and counties in Illinois, Texas, New York and Maryland, according to USA Today. Maine and New York have statewide bans that will take effect soon.
Large retailers like Ace Hardware, Lowe’s and The Home Depot discontinued use of coal tar sealant, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
“We do take steps when it's important, in recognition of protecting Virginians’ health and our wildlife,” Tran said. “I hope that we can continue this conversation in the future and we have that recognition to give localities that tool.”