Company looks to pave the way to more earth-friendly asphalt

TRAVERSE CITY – In a business that's considered far from green – black, in fact – one company in the Grand Traverse area is leading the way with an earth-conscious philosophy.

For 14 years, SureSeal has been using an environmentally-friendly asphalt emulsion sealing product. The most prevalent effect of this product is the lack of strong odors and reduced emissions of volatile organic compounds and offensive carcinogenic vapors.

Sealcoating is a preventative maintenance for asphalt. It protects and prolongs the life of asphalt pavement, which in itself is an ecologically good thing because instead of replacing the asphalt, it gets sealed.

"If it's maintained properly, it doesn't ever need to be replaced," said Rod Russell, owner of SureSeal.

Other sealcoating companies often use coal-tar sealant, which is a source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). New studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Water Environment Federation show that PAHs, which are known carcinogens and harmful to aquatic life, are washing into our streams, rivers lakes and bays everyday.

"Coal tar is a strong skin irritant. It burns your skin," said Russell. "Not just if you splash it on your skin, but the fumes coming up from it will burn your skin. So, I was very concerned about the health risks of it. Right from the beginning (1981) I was looking for a different product to use."

His research for a safe product first led him to the west coast. At that time nobody was manufacturing it or selling it in the Midwest. In his search, he also began to uncover the environmental hazards of using coal tar.

Finally in 1995, a company in Ohio called SealMaster started producing an environmentally-friendly asphalt emulsion. Russell switched to the new product soon after his discovery and has used it ever since.

"When I started using the asphalt emulsion, I thought it would catch on quickly and that other contractors would follow. But no, it's used very little. I'm not looking at it as something to give me an advantage. I just want to spread the word about the environmental and health hazards of coal tar," said Russell.

The way that sealer comes off of a parking lot is through abrasion. Car tires and snow-plows grind the coal tar up into fine particles and dust and it is then washed directly into the storm sewer system, then into the watershed.

"When you get into a metropolitan area where you've got acres and acres of asphalt pavement, it can pose potential environmental problems," said Russell.

In 2005 the city of Austin, TX took a stand against coal tar. It was the first city in the United States to ban the use of pavement sealants containing coal tar. Research conducted by the city of Austin and the U.S. Geological Survey indicated that PAH containing particles were washing off of parking lots and into area creeks and rivers.

Dane County in Madison, Wisc. followed suit in 2007.

Russell also uses environmentally-safe water-based paints for striping, and infrared repair technology. With infrared repair, instead of cutting a piece of asphalt out and hauling the pieces away using fossil fuels, the asphalt is recycled right in place.

"Just from the smell alone, I can't imagine why anyone would want to use coal tar when there's an alternative product. I'm trying to go out and do my work without stinking this town up. If I'm going to profit off of something, I don't think it should be at the expense of other people's health," said Russell.

The price of coal tar has actually risen over the last few years. Ashphalt emulsion used to be more pricey, but now the products are in close contention, Russell said.

You can contact SureSeal at (231) 933-6670. BN