andrew schneider investigates

February 27, 2008

Another shot at finally banning asbestos

On Thursday, a House committee is going to try to introduce a law to ban the manufacture, import or use of a substance that has killed hundreds of thousands going back to the Roman Empire. A rational person might think that it would just breeze through Congress to the cheers of all. Recent history says that is not so.

Sen. Patty Murray deserves a medal, for endurance if nothing else, because she and her staff battled for almost six years to get the votes and industry okay to pass a ban on all asbestos in the U.S. like most of the rest of the grownup countries.

In the fall, it finally happened. The full senate passed Murray’s bill and those government physicians and toxicologists and civilian public health experts who worked so long and hard to help Murray, led the cheering. But the joy was short lived.

Sen. Patty Murray

When the same witnesses who testified for Murray read the actual language in the Senate-passed bill they found it wasn’t a complete ban. To get Republican support and to appease industry lobbyists, staff lawyers and investigators for Murray and co-sponsor Barbara Boxer snipped, slashed and watered down the strong, protective language of the original bill. As passed, the legislation now permits the existence, use and sale of material containing levels of asbestos that has filled graveyards with miners and consumers of asbestos-contaminated talc, taconite, vermiculite and other products including imported toys and play clay.

The proposed House ban bill being introduced tomorrow by the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials is said to address many of the shortcomings in the Senate legislation.The committee language, if adopted, will institute several important changes that will protect workers and consumers alike.

It will prohibit the mining and sale of asbestos-tainted vermiculite, talc and taconite. The taconite industry in Minnesota and Michigan was attempting to sell the heavily contaminated waste material remaining after the taconite iron ore was removed for use in highway and other major constructions jobs. This, even though the union halls in the small towns along the “Iron Range” are filled with men shackled to oxygen tanks and reminders of other miners who died of asbestos-related disease.

George Biekkola is one of the many Taconite miners who died from asbestosis along the Iron Range. Photo by Paul Kitagaki Jr.

If passed, the House version will also demand tougher scrutiny of the nation’s few remaining vermiculite and talc mines, which public health experts say have been free from enforcement efforts for too long. In their desire to get the ban in operation as quickly as possible the House language also frees the EPA from spending years and endless, laborious hearings developing rules and regulations to enforce the ban. Congress will make it law and committee members say this will save years in getting the lethal asbestos fibers off the market.

People in EPA headquarters told the P-I this morning that the agency strongly favors the House version, but EPA’s comments are still being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. Some in the agency say they fear the EPA comments will be watered down to favor industry as the OMB has done is often n the past.

House members say that lobbyists from industry, the trial lawyers and asbestos research groups have been parading through offices of the committee members pushing to have their interests – which are often financial – protected. As late as Monday, some Senate staffers were still telling reporters that Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell was going to bow to pressure from the auto industry to permit the use of asbestos in cars and trucks. But the bill prohibits all uses of new asbestos. The language does permit the sale of used cars which may still have asbestos-containing brakes, but bans all future import, manufacturer or use of these brakes. There also are no restrictions on the sale of homes and businesses containing asbestos or Zonolite insulation.

It will be months before the House proposal will come up for a vote, and it also must go to a conference committee to see how it will meld with what the Senate passed. It is still a long road, with many obstacles, but it appears that the effort to actually ban asbestos in America is back on track.


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