Gibraltar Adopts Ordinance to Ban Coal-Tar-Based Sealants

The Town of Gibraltar voted unanimously to adopt an ordinance banning the sale and use of coal-tar-based sealants, making it only the second municipality in Door County to do so.

This ordinance will allow the town to fine individuals $250 – and contractors $1,000 – per day of violation. It will also require businesses that previously sold the sealants to put up a sign letting customers know about the ordinance.

The ordinance is modeled after others adopted elsewhere in the state and in Sturgeon Bay, where the ordinance has been on the books since January 2020. The Gibraltar Town Board’s July 7 decision to follow suit was because no action to ban coal-tar-based sealants has been taken on a state level, according to town board chair Steve Sohns.

“The alternative is to fight this in a different direction,” Sohns said. “The way to do that is for local communities to enact bans.”

What Are Coal-Tar-Based Sealants?

Coal-tar-based sealants are used to protect and refresh paved asphalt surfaces such as driveways, parking lots and playgrounds, said Dean Hoegger, president and executive director of the Green Bay–based Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin. These sealants are historically inexpensive because coal tar is a byproduct of the process used to refine coal – and because they’re inexpensive, they’re used fairly commonly, Hoegger said. 

That’s a problem because coal tar is full of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): naturally occurring chemicals that result from burning materials such as coal, oil and gas. These chemicals have adverse effects on both humans and the environment.

“It’s a cancer risk, especially for kids who are exposed to [coal-tar-based sealants] for long periods of time,” Hoegger said. 

According to a U.S. Geological Survey study, the excess cancer risk was 38 times higher for people living next to coal-tar-sealcoated pavement than for people not living next to such pavement. And the harmful chemicals in these sealants travel through the air, tires and shoes, Hoegger said.

“The sealant wears off, so it has to be reapplied every three, four, five years,” he said. “It ends up being tracked into the home, day care centers, schools, churches – places where kids are hanging out.”

PAHs can also get into bodies of water such as streams via runoff, Hoegger said. There, PAHs can affect aquatic organisms such as invertebrates, amphibians and fish, causing reproductive and developmental problems and even death. 

Alternatives to coal-tar-based sealants include asphalt-based pavement sealants, which have up to 1,000 times lower PAH levels, or acrylic sealants, according to Clean Wisconsin.

Municipalities Are Doing What States Are Not

Although the risks associated with coal-tar-based sealants are well documented (Hoegger said it was first brought to the attention of the Clean Water Action Council around 2010), the state of Wisconsin has yet to take action on it. Washington, Minnesota, Maine, New York and Maryland are the only U.S. states that have coal-tar-based sealant bans either in effect now or planned to go into effect by 2024, according to Coal Tar Free America.

In Wisconsin, bills to ban coal-tar-based sealants have gone to Madison twice during the past few years, but Hoegger said the Clean Water Action Council understood, after speaking with Rep. Joel Kitchens, that it would likely be a long time before the issue was taken to the state level again.

That’s why Hoegger and the council are shifting approaches and trying to get individual municipalities to enact their own bans. 

According to Clean Wisconsin, at least 24 Wisconsin municipalities have banned the use of coal-tar-based sealants.

Though only two municipalities in Door County have banned the  sealant, Hoegger – who recently presented lectures on the topic at Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay and at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim – is hopeful that the movement will spread.

“One person said they were going to take it to the Town of Sturgeon Bay and get it on their agenda; another person wanted to get it on the Egg Harbor agenda; and in Sister Bay, we had somebody who was very adamant about getting it before the [village] board,” Hoegger said.