Energy & Environment

Dems look to bypass EPA with asbestos ban

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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. (D-N.J.).{mosads}

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 Tonko (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 Shimkus (R-Ill.).

Rep. Greg Walden (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.”

Tags asbestos EPA Frank Pallone Jr. Greg Walden House Energy and Commerce Committee John Shimkus Paul Tonko

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