EPA pushes back on asbestos criticisms

EPA pushes back on asbestos criticisms
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The Trump administration is pushing back against a rash of criticism that new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) policies could lead to the import or manufacturing of asbestos.

The controversy stems from a June 1 proposal that sought to require companies to notify the EPA if they planned to import or manufacture various out-of-date uses of asbestos, like roofing felt and floor tile.

It led this week to a firestorm, with news stories, denunciations and well-known figures like Chelsea Clinton and Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzAlabama Republican touts provision in infrastructure bill he voted against Telehealth was a godsend during the pandemic; Congress should keep the innovation going Framing our future beyond the climate crisis MORE (D-Hawaii) charging that the EPA is opening the door to asbestos — something the agency strongly refutes.


The EPA is pushing back with a PR blitz through interviews, social media and a fact sheet.

Nancy Beck, a deputy associate administrator in the EPA’s chemical safety office, characterized the proposal, dubbed a significant new use rule (SNUR), as a ban, since the EPA would evaluate the risk before any manufacturing or imports are allowed and stop it if needed.

“By doing the SNUR, if someone wants to start the manufacturing and processing, if we find risk, we can prevent it,” said Beck, who worked at the American Chemistry Council, an industry group, before then-EPA head Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittUnderstanding the barriers between scientists, the public and the truth Overnight Energy & Environment — Biden makes return to pre-Trump national monument boundaries official Trump-era EPA board member sues over firing MORE hired her last year.

Nonetheless, health advocates are concerned.

While they don’t agree with news reports that have characterized the EPA as opening the floodgates to asbestos, they say that the agency’s actions aren’t as protective as they should be.

Alongside the June 1 proposal, the EPA proposed a list of uses for asbestos that would go through the risk evaluation process, which can lead to total bans. Advocates want the EPA to include the outdated uses in the risk evaluations, so that they could be banned as well — not just subject to the SNUR process that gives the EPA significant discretion.

“It’s reasonably foreseen that a longstanding or significant use of a chemical that has been phased out could re-enter commerce if there’s no legal bar against it,” said Liz Hitchcock, acting executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition of groups advocating for stronger chemical regulation.

EPA’s proposal to require notifications for reviving outdated uses is a “decent stopgap tool,” Hitchcock said, but “it’s not the permanent ban that we need to protect public health.”

At the root of the issue is a deep distrust by environmentalists, health advocates and the left of the Trump administration's environmental policies. Former EPA head Scott Pruitt repeatedly sought to ease rules for regulated companies, and Andrew Wheeler, his successor, has pledged to continue the agenda.

It’s possible past remarks by President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE also fueled skepticism about the EPA’s intentions.

“If we didn't remove incredibly powerful fire retardant asbestos & replace it with junk that doesn't work, the World Trade Center would never have burned down,” he tweeted in 2012. In his 1997 book “Art of the Comeback,” he speculated that the mob had led efforts to stop its use.

Asbestos is currently not banned by the federal government, although it is almost never used in ways that would expose people to it. Officials have known for decades that asbestos causes illnesses like lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

The EPA tried to implement a sweeping ban in 1989 under the Toxic Substances Control Act. But the industry sued and a court overturned most of the ban.

Asbestos then became the poster child for federal inaction on dangerous chemicals, leading to the near-unanimous passage in 2016 of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which, among other things, sought to make it easier for the EPA to ban known harmful chemicals.

Recent stories in Fast Company and The Architects Newspaper claimed that the EPA’s SNUR rule effectively approved the use of the carcinogenic mineral in manufacturing and imports. 

“Experts who have looked at [the document] have said that in the end, it pretty much gives EPA discretion to do whatever it wants,” Bill Walsh, board president of the Healthy Building Network, told Fast Company.

The reports went viral, spurring the commentary from Clinton, Schatz and others.

That’s led the EPA to push back.

The agency says what it’s doing on asbestos is the most aggressive federal action against the chemical in decades, carrying out Congress’s instructions to significantly reduce exposure to it and ban its uses.

“I’m completely confused by the press that thinks that there’s something wrong here. But in many ways, this is a very good news story,” said Beck.

As for the calls for more aggressive actions against out-of-date applications of asbestos such as roofing and pipeline wrap, EPA argues that it doesn’t have the authority to regulate legacy uses of chemicals like asbestos before it knows that they are coming back into use.

“If nobody is manufacturing asbestos for building materials, we have no authority to prohibit it,” Beck said, as an example.

Environmental and health groups, led largely by the Environmental Defense Fund, have already filed lawsuits against the EPA over two regulations it wrote to implement the 2016 chemical rule, and they’re likely to file more.