Dems look to bypass EPA with asbestos ban

Dems look to bypass EPA with asbestos ban

House Democrats hope to sidestep the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a bill that would ban asbestos within a year.

In a Wednesday hearing before the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Democrats grilled EPA chemical staff on why the agency hasn’t taken more restrictive actions on the harmful substance three years after passing a law to give the agency more authority to regulate dangerous chemicals.

“I wish today’s hearing wasn’t necessary and this bill wasn't necessary, but asbestos is still being imported into the U.S. and still being used in this country, and still killing about 40,000 Americans every year,” said committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Deal on surprise medical bills faces obstacles | House GOP unveils rival drug pricing measure ahead of Pelosi vote | Justices to hear case over billions in ObamaCare payments Obstacles remain for deal on surprise medical bills This week: House impeachment inquiry hits crucial stretch MORE (D-N.J.).

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The EPA has been under heavy criticism for its latest action on asbestos, something the agency argues will limit the use of asbestos in the U.S. but critics say could reintroduce some asbestos products to the market.

The agency has resisted calls to ban the cancer-causing substance outright, even against the wishes of some of its staff, arguing it must continue to go through its risk evaluation process, even if lengthier than some might prefer.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that senior EPA officials ignored the advice of scientists and lawyers in restricting rather than banning asbestos.

“Rather than allow for (even with restrictions) any new uses for asbestos, E.P.A. should seek to ban all new uses of asbestos because the extreme harm from this chemical substance outweighs any benefit — and because there are adequate alternatives to asbestos,” staff members wrote in a memo from August.

The memo alarmed subcommittee Chairman Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans push back on bipartisan bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners House passes sweeping bill to target spread of toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-N.Y.).

“Based on some of these communications it seems clear that numerous EPA career staff believe the agency is not fully pursuing efforts to reduce asbestos exposure, and I hope these expert voices have a role as the process moves forward,” he said.

Asbestos is still sometimes used in the construction of roads and production of chlorine, among other products, but more than 60 countries have banned the use of the substance or products that contain it.

“The U.S. must do the same,” argued Tonko, but “I have little confidence that EPA will move forward on a reasonable timeline with the only acceptable outcome: a complete asbestos ban.”

Congress banned asbestos in 1989 but a court overturned that law in 1991, allowing limited uses of asbestos to continue.

Committee Republicans accused Democrats of politicizing the issue, trying to sidestep a science-based EPA process that could help the agency avoid future litigation.

“Let me be honest here. If a Democrat was in the White House right now, my Democratic colleagues would be very skeptical of me trying to overturn a chemical review,” said ranking member John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusRepublicans eye legislation to rival Democrats' sweeping climate plan Overnight Energy: House passes sweeping bill on 'forever chemicals' | Green groups question Pentagon about burning of toxic chemicals | Steyer plan would open US to climate refugees House passes sweeping bill to target spread of toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (R-Ill.).

Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenConservative groups aim to sink bipartisan fix to 'surprise' medical bills Overnight Energy: Schumer votes against USMCA, citing climate impact | Republicans offer details on their environmental proposals | Microsoft aims to be carbon negative by 2030 Republicans offer details on environmental proposals after Democrats roll out plan MORE (R-Ore.) said that although he’d like to see an end to mesothelioma, the committee needed to carefully consider what unintended consequences a ban could have.

“I’m concerned about the immediate loss of 36 percent — that’s over one third — of our national chlorine production” and the risk that would pose to hospitals and drinking water supplies, he said.

For its part, the EPA continues to stress that its rule is the first meaningful action on asbestos in 30 years.

Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, told the committee the rule is an “aggressive and critical step” in addressing asbestos, stressing the need to go through a measured process in considering the risk factors associated with asbestos.

Dunn told The Hill in April that the agency may eventually ban asbestos.  

Committee Democrats made clear they have lost faith in Dunn’s office under the Trump administration.

“Unfortunately, it’s now clear that despite the best efforts of our committee the Trump EPA is not using the tools we gave it to regulate dangerous chemicals,” Pallone Jr. said, adding that EPA’s actions “have been so legally suspect we need to pass this bill regardless of whether EPA were to announce it’s moving forward with a full ban of asbestos.”