Critics say new EPA rule could reintroduce asbestos use

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Wednesday a new rule they say will limit the use of asbestos in the U.S., but critics, including some of the agency’s own staff, describe it as a half measure that could reintroduce some asbestos products to the market.

The EPA said the new rule closes a loophole from a 30-year-old law that prevented the agency from restricting the sale of certain asbestos products.

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“Today, we are following the laws Congress gave us to close the door on certain asbestos products to prevent them from returning to the marketplace without EPA’s review,” Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator of the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, said in a release, referring to a 2016 law that gave the EPA the power to prohibit asbestos.

But many argue the review process itself could reopen the door to 15 uses of the substance while questioning why the agency didn’t outright ban asbestos.

Under the new rule, manufacturers must notify and seek approval from the EPA before resuming use of asbestos in certain cases.

“To think that any company would willingly attempt to resurrect these 15 obsolete asbestos uses is ludicrous. That EPA would enable it is unconscionable,” the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, which was founded by asbestos victims, wrote in a statement.

Dunn told The Hill that the rule builds upon a 1989 law that barred five uses of asbestos but left many others untouched.

“We’re taking first action taken in 30 years to protect people from asbestos,” she said.

Asbestos is currently not banned by the federal government, although the once widely used substance is now 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.

“This new rule makes it more difficult for industry to resume some abandoned uses of asbestos, but that is a half step at best,” Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney at the Environmental Working Group, wrote in a press release. An outright ban “is the only way the public can trust industry will never again be able to use this dangerous material that has literally killed tens of thousands of Americans.”

Critics offered similar comments when the rule was first proposed and open for comment last June.

Dunn said the new rule is broader than the initially proposed rule. The agency added that other products like cement and packaging supplies would be reviewed for asbestos, along with a “catch all category” for any other unlisted product that might contain asbestos.

EPA career staff also questioned why the agency stopped short of a ban when the rule was being developed in the spring of last year.

“This new approach allows asbestos-containing products that are not currently used to be used in the future,” Mark Seltzer, an attorney in the EPA’s enforcement office, told his colleagues in emails first reported on by The New York Times last August. “Many manufacturers have stopped using asbestos in their products but would be allowed to through this.”

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 broader restrictions.  

The EPA responded to earlier criticism of the rule saying it was inaccurately being portrayed as opening the floodgates to asbestos.

“If someone wants to start the manufacturing and processing, if we find risk, we can prevent it,”  said Nancy Beck, principal deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told The Hill. “This is a very good story for public health protection.”

It’s possible past remarks by President Trump 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.

Updated April 18, 4:25 p.m.