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EPA staff objected to Trump administration's asbestos plan, emails show

EPA staff objected to Trump administration's asbestos plan, emails show
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Career staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) objected to the Trump administration’s plan for a new regulatory approach toward asbestos.

Internal emails obtained by The New York Times show that career staff involved with the development of a key proposal meant to prevent companies from returning to use of the carcinogenic chemical felt that steps being taken by senior officials could allow for some legacy uses to return anew.

Asbestos is not banned on the federal level, except for a few specific uses. A 2016 law gave the EPA new authority to prohibit the carcinogen.

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The EPA’s proposal, released publicly in June, has come under scrutiny in recent days following allegations that it would open the door to widespread uses of asbestos. EPA officials have vociferously denied the accusations and say the proposed regulations would effectively ban the substance.

But staff emails from the spring show significant concerns among employees regarding part of the agency’s approach to what's known as a significant new use rule (SNUR).

The agency chose to list 15 known uses of asbestos, even though none are currently in use, and proposed companies be required to notify the EPA if they want to use asbestos in those situations, a move that would give the agency time to examine and potentially ban them.

Career staff pushed instead for a wider rule that would have encompassed all legacy uses of asbestos.

Mark Seltzer, an attorney in the EPA’s enforcement office, told his colleagues in April that scientists and others in the workgroup assembled for the asbestos rule objected to it.

“This new approach allows asbestos-containing products that are not currently used to be used in the future,” Seltzer argued in one of the emails obtained by the New York Times. “Many manufacturers have stopped using asbestos in their products but would be allowed to through this SNUR if it is not one of the approximately 15 types that the SNUR requires a [notification] for.”

Others reflected Seltzer’s opposition.

Sharon Cooperstein from the EPA’s policy office said in one of the emails that senior officials have “provided the workgroup no clear explanation of why the new approach is preferable” to the previous plan. “The new approach raises significant concerns about the potential public health impacts of the SNUR.”

EPA spokesman James Hewitt told the Times that the emails showed some staffers “did not fully understand the proposal being developed.”

Nancy Beck, a top political appointee in the EPA’s chemical safety office, defended the agency’s approach to The Hill earlier this week.

She said the SNUR, taken together with another proposal to scientifically study current uses of asbestos, creates “a regulatory framework that allows us to evaluate asbestos as it’s never been evaluated before.”

“By doing the SNUR, if someone wants to start the manufacturing and processing, if we find risk, we can prevent it,” she said. “This is a very good story for public health protection.”