Commission on the Environment Pushing for Ban of Coal Tar Sealants

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A screenshot from a presentation by EGLE's Christie Alwin showing a parking lot sealed with coal tar sealant.

After a presentation on Monday, Oct. 19, East Lansing’s Commission on the Environment requested that City Staff and Council Liaison Lisa Babcock work on drafting a resolution — based on one recently adopted in Meridian Township — banning the use of coal tar sealants in East Lansing.

The presentation, originally scheduled for March but delayed due to Covid-19, was given by Christie Alwin who works for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). 

Alwin explained that coal tar sealants are commonly used for low traffic paved surfaces, like parking lots. 

The coal tar is a byproduct of “coking” coal, a process that turns coal into “coke” — a form of fuel similar to coal. The coal tar, Alwin said, contains high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are toxic to aquatic species and may be carcinogenic to humans. Sealed pavement with coal tar remains toxic for about a year after application.

When coal tar sealants get used on driveways, parking lots and other paved surfaces, the PAHs ultimately may make it into homes and stormwater systems. There is a “fair amount of human exposure,” Alwin said.

PAHs end up in stormwater systems via runoff and eventually saturate into the sediment of retention ponds. They can also be present in surface water. Alwin advised the Commission that most stormwater systems are aging and likely require some dredging of sediment to restore their full function and remove PAHs. 

The alternative to coal tar-based sealants, Alwin said, is asphalt-based sealants — or even potentially a mix. According to Alwin’s presentation, coal tar sealants have a PAH concentration of around 50,000 parts per million (ppm) and asphalt sealants contain about one-hundredth that level of PAHs, or 500 ppm. 

To determine what type of sealant was used on a parking lot or other surface, Alwin described a simple and quick test: Scrape some sealant off, pour “Klean Strip” brand paint thinner over that sample of sealant, and see what color it turns. Asphalt sealants will produce an opaque black and brown liquid, but coal tar sealants result in a lighter hue and a more transparent liquid.

In sampling done across the state, Alwin said, EGLE found that a majority of sealed surfaces had coal tar sealants. She even mentioned that EGLE’s current offices have a coal tar sealed parking lot.

“Throughout our entire experience,” Alwin said, “we’re just having repeated findings that the coal tar sealants are present, and that they’re present on levels concerning to aquatic life.”

Alwin also included in her presentation a list of the different municipalities and groups to ban the use of coal tar sealants in Michigan.

After Alwin’s presentation and a robust discussion, the Commission decided to move ahead with recommending the proposed ban. 

Babcock will take the Meridian Township ordinance and adjust the language — in consultation with the City Attorney — to fit into East Lansing’s law, and Environmental Services Administrator Cathy DeShambo will take that and work it through necessary departments in the City. They told the Commission they’d have an ordinance for recommendation by the November meeting of the Commission.

The ultimate decision will be up to Council.

The goal of adopting the ban — and the work Babcock and DeShambo are doing — is to have the ban work in concert with Meridian Township and, eventually, the region. The hope of several commissioners was to set Meridian Township’s ban as the local standard, branching it out to cover the greater-Lansing area via laws in the applicable municipalities. 

Meridian Township’s ban requires commercial applicators — coal tar sealants aren’t commonly sold to non-commercial entities, Alwin explained — to file for a permit with a $25 fee. Violations carry up to a $500 fine.

Commissioner Michael Townley suggested that if someone has applied for the permit in Meridian Township, they shouldn’t have to pay again in East Lansing, just follow the same rules. That would help encourage people to comply, he argued, by requiring less money and time from commercial applicators. It also creates the regional standard the Commission hopes to spark.

DeShambo will, at the request of commissioner Cheryl Schmidt, put language in the proposed East Lansing ban encouraging regional adoption of the rule.

“The water doesn’t stop at the city’s borders,” Schmidt said.

Commissioner Clifford Walls said he’d broach the topic with the Greater Lansing Regional Committee for Stormwater Management, of which he is a member. 

Walls said he didn’t expect it to be a fast process, acknowledging it’s hard to get more than a dozen different governments on the same page, but he did anticipate general support for the idea.

Both Walls and Townley mentioned they should advertise the potential partnership with Meridian Township and Walls said something could be included in the GLRCSM newsletter. 

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