Days after ProPublica
detailed dangerous working conditions at a chlorine plant that used
asbestos until it closed last year, public health advocates and two U.S.
lawmakers are renewing calls for Congress to ban the carcinogen.
“American workers are dying from asbestos. It is way
past time to end its use,” said Sen.
Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon. “This ProPublica report confirms
our worst fears: workers dealing with asbestos are often left vulnerable to
this deadly, dangerous substance.”
Merkley and Rep.
Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., are sponsoring the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos
Now Act, which would permanently ban the importing and use of asbestos. The
proposed legislation is named after Alan Reinstein, who died in 2006 from
mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. Alan’s wife, Linda, co-founded the
Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, one of the leading nonprofits that has
advocated for protecting the public from the dangers of asbestos.
The lack of a ban “puts workers, their families, and
the surrounding communities at risk for deadly disease and death from asbestos
exposure, which as ProPublica detailed, is sickeningly frequent and widespread
and without consequences for the companies that allow it to continue,”
said Linda Reinstein in a statement.
Reinstein has helped build a coalition of doctors, public
health experts, trade unions and advocates to push Congress to pass the
asbestos ban. This week, Reinstein’s organization sent
letters to members of Congress calling for their support and
highlighting the findings of the ProPublica investigation.
“This powerful article explodes the decades-long claim
of the chlor-alkali industry that its use of asbestos is safe for
workers,” said Bob Sussman, a former deputy administrator for the
Environmental Protection Agency during the Clinton administration who now works
as counsel for the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. “There can no
longer be any doubt that, as EPA has found, asbestos-using plants present a
serious risk to the worker health and this risk must be eliminated.”
The lawmakers filed the bill in May and it had one Senate
committee hearing in June. Since the ProPublica report was published in
collaboration with NPR last Thursday, three House members have signed
on to co-sponsor
Unlike dozens of other countries, the United States has
never fully banned asbestos. The EPA made an attempt to do so in 1989, but it
was overturned in federal court in 1991, and efforts by lawmakers to outlaw the
carcinogen have repeatedly fallen short. Meanwhile, the chemical industry has
continued to import hundreds of tons of asbestos – more than 200,000 pounds –
every year for use in chlorine production plants.
The industry has long fought against a ban by saying its
workers were well protected by strict safety measures and strong workplace
safety regulations. Public health organizations and lawmakers had suspected
that those safety claims were exaggerated, but for years were unable to assess
the conditions inside these plants.
The ProPublica investigation found that safety standards
were routinely disregarded at what was once America’s longest-standing chlorine
plant. Workers at the OxyChem Niagara Falls plant said asbestos would splatter
on the ceilings and walls, roll across the floor like tumbleweeds and stick to
workers’ clothes. Windows and doors were left open, allowing asbestos dust to
escape. The company’s own industrial hygiene monitoring showed their workers
were repeatedly exposed to unsafe levels. Federal workplace regulators had also
stopped conducting regular unannounced inspections at the plant; the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration included the Niagara Falls site
and others like it in a special program for “exemplary” workplaces.
In response to ProPublica’s reporting, OxyChem said the
health and safety of its workers is its top priority. The company said the
workers’ accounts from Niagara Falls were inaccurate, but wouldn’t provide
specifics on what was incorrect. The plant closed last year for unrelated
reasons. Eight other plants in the U.S. still use asbestos.
“It’s devastating to see at every step of the way
where worker safety wasn’t protected: by the companies, and by the EPA and OSHA
during past administrations,” said Merkley.
Asbestos is a toxic mineral that can cause serious illnesses
like scarring of the lungs, called asbestosis, and mesothelioma, a vicious
cancer that kills most victims within a few years. The government’s inability
to ban asbestos has been cited as one of the greatest failures of the U.S. chemical
regulatory system. “The system was so complex, it was so burdensome that
our country hasn’t even been able to uphold a ban on asbestos – a known
carcinogen that kills as many as 10,000 Americans every year,” President
Barack Obama said in 2016 on the day he signed legislation meant to fix these
Later that year, the EPA began the formal process of
re-evaluating the risks associated with asbestos. It took five years, and in
2020, the agency determined chlorine workers were at “unreasonable
risk” from their exposure to asbestos.
In April, the EPA proposed a new asbestos ban. The rule
needs to be finalized before it goes into effect, and the EPA has said that it
is planning to be done with that process by November 2023. In that time, EPA
will consider industry arguments against a ban, including claims that workers
face little risk of exposure. The chemical companies have also argued the ban
could disrupt the country’s supply of chlorine used to clean drinking water,
even though public health advocates say only a small portion of chlorine from
asbestos-reliant plants is used for that purpose. Twelve Republican attorneys general
have backed the companies and said an asbestos ban would place a “heavy
and unreasonable burden” on the industry.
Michal Freedoff, the official in charge of chemical
regulation at EPA, told ProPublica she could not comment on the final
rule-making process but said the agency would not be backing down on the
The agency has already extended the original deadlines for
evaluating and regulating asbestos. The evaluation was supposed to be complete
three years after it started in 2016, and the regulations should have been
finalized within two years after that. Lawmakers and public health advocates
worry, given the chemical industry’s influence, that there will be even further
delays or a new ban will be held up in court. (In response, the EPA pointed out
that despite an increased workload, its budget for chemical regulation has
remained flat for six years. It also said the Trump administration missed
deadlines for nine out of the first 10 chemicals, including asbestos, that were
to be regulated under the new 2016 law.)
Organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund are
calling for the EPA to expedite its ban, especially given the findings in the
ProPublica investigation. The “reporting underscores the need to take
action to ban chrysotile asbestos, particularly to protect workers,” said
Maria Doa, senior director of chemicals policy at the Environmental Defense
Fund. “Given the strong, well-established science on the unreasonable
risks posed by chrysotile asbestos, we reiterate our call for EPA to expedite
its final decision to ban chrysotile asbestos and to require rapid
implementation of the ban.”
Merkley and Bonamici, along with the Asbestos Disease
Awareness Organization, are instead pushing Congress to write a ban into law,
which would accelerate the process and make it harder for the industry to
overturn it in court. The bill would ban all six known types of asbestos,
whereas the EPA rule would only ban the one type primarily used in the U.S.
ProPublica reached out to Sen.
Tom Carper, D-Del., and Rep.
Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the chairs of the committees where the bill was
filed. Carper said he remains “committed to working with our colleagues on
both sides of the aisle, as well as advocates and industry stakeholders”
on the proposal. Pallone, however, said he believed the EPA will act on
asbestos. “I’m confident the Biden Administration takes this public health
threat as seriously as I do, and look forward to continuing to work with them
to get asbestos banned once and for all,” he said in a statement. The
minority leaders of the committees, Sen.
Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Rep.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., did not respond to questions or provide
comment on the conditions at the Niagara Falls plant