days later ProPublica details unsafe working conditions At a chlorine plant that used asbestos until it closed last year, public health advocates and two US lawmakers are renewing their calls for Congress to ban the carcinogen.
“American workers are dying from asbestos. It is high time to end its use,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon. “This ProPublica report confirms our worst fears: workers who deal with asbestos are often vulnerable to this deadly and dangerous substance.”
Merkley and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., sponsor the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act, which would permanently ban the importation and use of asbestos. The bill is named after Alan Reinstein, who died in 2006 of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. Alan’s wife, Linda, co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, one of the leading non-profit organizations that advocated for public protection from the dangers of asbestos.
Failure to ban “puts workers, their families, and surrounding communities at risk of fatal disease and death from exposure to asbestos, which, as detailed by ProPublica, is of a and a sickening, business-neutral broadcast that allows it to continue,” Linda Reinstein said in a statement.
Reinstein helped build a coalition of doctors, public health experts, unions and advocates to push Congress to pass the asbestos ban. This week, Reinstein’s organization sent letters to members of Congress calling for their support and highlighting the findings of the ProPublica investigation.
“This powerful article explodes the chlor-alkali industry’s decades-long claim that its use of asbestos is safe for workers,” said Bob Sussman, former deputy administrator of the Protection Agency of the environment under the Clinton administration, who now works as an attorney for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “There is no longer any doubt that, as found by the EPA, factories using asbestos pose a serious health risk to workers and that risk must be eliminated.”
Lawmakers tabled the bill in May and it had a Senate committee hearing in June. Since the publication of the ProPublica report in collaboration with NRP last Thursday, three members of the Chamber signed co-sponsor the bill.
Unlike dozens of other countries, the United States has never completely banned asbestos. The EPA tried to do so in 1989, but it was struck down by a federal court in 1991, and lawmakers’ efforts to ban the carcinogen have repeatedly failed. Meanwhile, the chemical industry continued to import hundreds of tons of asbestos – over 200,000 pounds – each year for use in chlorine production plants.
The industry has long fought a ban, saying its workers are well protected by strict security measures and tough workplace safety regulations. Public health organizations and lawmakers suspected these safety claims were exaggerated, but for years they were unable to assess the conditions inside these factories.
ProPublica’s investigation found that safety standards were routinely ignored at what was once the oldest chlorine plant in the United States. Workers at the OxyChem Niagara Falls plant said asbestos would splatter ceilings and walls, roll across the floor like tumbleweeds and stick to workers’ clothing. The windows and doors were left open, letting the asbestos dust escape. The company’s own industrial hygiene monitoring showed that its workers were repeatedly exposed to unsafe levels. Federal workplace regulators had also stopped conducting regular unannounced inspections at the plant; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has included the Niagara Falls site and other similar sites in a special program for “exemplary” workplaces.
In response to ProPublica’s report, OxyChem said the health and safety of its workers is its top priority. The company said the Niagara Falls workers’ accounts were inaccurate, but did not provide details on what was incorrect. The factory closed last year for unrelated reasons. Eight other factories in the United States still use asbestos.
“It’s devastating to see at every step of the process where worker safety was not protected: by companies, and by the EPA and OSHA during previous administrations,” Merkley said.
Asbestos is a toxic mineral that can cause serious illnesses like scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a vicious cancer that kills most victims within a few years. The government’s failure to ban asbestos has been cited as one of the greatest failures of the US chemicals regulatory system. “The system was so complex, it was so cumbersome that our country wasn’t even able to maintain a ban on asbestos – a known carcinogen that kills up to 10,000 Americans each year,” the president said. Barack Obama in 2016 the day he signed legislation to address these issues.
Later that year, the EPA began the formal process of reassessing the risks associated with asbestos. It took five years, and in 2020 the agency determined that the chlorine workers were at “unreasonable riskof their exposure to asbestos.
In April, the EPA proposed a new asbestos ban. The rule must be finalized before taking effect, and the EPA said it expects to complete this process by November 2023. During this time, the EPA will consider industry arguments against a ban, including claims that workers face little risk of exposure. Chemical companies have also argued that the ban could disrupt the country’s supply of chlorine used to clean drinking water, even though public health advocates say only a small portion of chlorine comes from factories dependent on asbestos is used for this purpose. Twelve Republican attorneys general backed the companies and said an asbestos ban would place a “heavy and unreasonable burdenon the industry.
Michal Freedoff, head of chemicals regulation at the EPA, told ProPublica she couldn’t comment on the final rulemaking process, but said the agency wouldn’t back down on the science.
The agency has already extended the initial deadlines for assessing and regulating asbestos. The assessment was due to be completed three years after it began in 2016, and the regulations should have been finalized within two years of that. Lawmakers and public health advocates fear, given the influence of the chemical industry, that there will be even more delays or that a new ban will be held up in court. (In response, the EPA pointed out that despite an increased workload, its chemicals regulatory budget has held steady for six years. It also said the Trump administration missed deadlines for nine of the first 10 chemicals, including asbestos, which were to be regulated by the new 2016 law.)
Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund are calling on the EPA to expedite its ban, especially given the findings of the ProPublica investigation. The “report highlights the need for action to ban chrysotile asbestos, particularly to protect workers,” said Maria Doa, senior director of chemicals policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Given the solid and well-established science on the unreasonable risks posed by chrysotile asbestos, we reiterate our call for the EPA to expedite its final decision to ban chrysotile asbestos and to demand implementation fast from the ban.”
Merkley and Bonamici, along with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, are instead pushing Congress to write a ban into law, which would speed up the process and make it harder for the industry to overturn it in court. The bill would ban all six known types of asbestos, while the EPA rule would only ban the one type primarily used in the United States.
ProPublica contacted Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del.and Representative Frank Pallone, D.N.J., the chairmen of the committees where the bill was tabled. Carper said he remains “committed to working with our colleagues on both sides of the aisle, as well as industry advocates and stakeholders” on the proposal. Pallone, however, said he believed the EPA would take action on asbestos. “I’m confident the Biden administration takes this public health threat as seriously as I do, and I look forward to continuing to work with them to get asbestos banned once and for all,” he said. said in a statement. The minority leaders of the committees, Senator Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va.and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.did not answer questions or provide comment on conditions at the Niagara Falls plant.