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Update on Asbestos Legislation (10-23-00)

Several actions over the past year have been responsible for a renewed public and legislative interest in the health dangers of asbestos.  In a 1999 Supreme Court ruling against a $1.5 billion class action settlement, the justices ruled that the settlement had compromised the rights of the victims and that it was up to Congress to develop legislation to help move the numerous asbestos lawsuits through the court system at a faster pace.  The second action was a series of Seattle Post-Intelligencer articles beginning in November 1999 about the Libby, MT, vermiculite mine and the 192 asbestos-related deaths there over the last 40 years.  The newspaper articles prompted a public outcry, and two federal investigations into government agencies' failure to warn Libby residents and workers.  Small amounts of asbestos from talc were also found in three major brands of crayons this summer.  These events may influence the federal government to reevaluate the way they regulate these fibers.

Most Recent Action
In March 1999, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) introduced H.R. 1283, a companion bill to S. 758 that would create a formal procedure for federal asbestos cases.  This bill, the Asbestos Compensation Act of 2000, would establish the Office of Asbestos Compensation within the Department of Justice as well as authorize the formation of the Asbestos Compensation Fund that would provide payments to claimants under this act.  A Congressional Research Service report on H.R. 1283, available at the National Library for the Environment, contains details about the proposals in the bill.   (10/23/00)

Following the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) lead, the Labor Department has launched its own investigation into the Libby, MT, vermiculite mine deaths.  Apparently, EPA has known about the dangerous levels of asbestos in the vermiculite ore since the 1980's.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) -- both part of the Labor Department -- also performed their own inspections but only the owner of the mine, W.R. Grace Co. was warned.  The double investigation may spark a reassessment of how the federal government regulates a complicated array of asbestos fibers.  OSHA acknowledged that the mining industry pressured it into agreeing not to regulate certain types of asbestos, that doctors relate to many deaths.  Disparities between federal exposure limits may be reevaluated: OSHA currently says that workers cannot be exposed to more than 0.1 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air while the MSHA allows for 20 times that. (8/21/00)

Current Congress
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $11.5 million in emergency funding for medical and economic funding for the Libby, MT vermiculite mine situation.  The funding was requested by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT)and Conrad Burns (R-MT).  On March 5th, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) effectively tabled S.758, The Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act of 1999, by announcing that the Senate did not have time to consider the bill this session.  H.R.1283,  the House companion bill to S. 758, narrowly made it past the House Judiciary Committee on March 16th. The bill, which was introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL), is designed to ease the burden that the massive amount of asbestos lawsuits puts on the court system by creating a new federal agency that would try to resolve the claims before they reach the courtroom.  Many opponents of the bill feel that its provision for 'voluntary mediation' instead of suing may prohibit or limit the compensation Libby residents could receive.  Many also feel that the medical standards that the bill sets are too strict.  Hyde's other bill, H.R.4543,  to amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide relief for payment of asbestos-related claims, was introduced on May 25, 2000 and was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Just this May, ABC News gave national attention to another Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigative report that a government-certified independent lab had found asbestos in three major brands of crayons.  The three major crayon firms -- Crayola, Prang, and Rose Art --  voluntarily agreed to find substitutes for the asbestos-containing talc, as requested by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. By law, the CPSC cannot order any product containing asbestos fibers off the market until there is a documented risk to children.  80% of the crayons tested were found to have 0.03 weight percent asbestos and 0.9 weight percent of asbestos-like fibers.  However, the CPSC acknowledges that the asbestos-like fibers found in crayons are often mistaken for the government-regulated and known carcinogenic ones.  The CPSC and Crayon companies have decided to err on the side of caution where children's health is concerned. The Washington Post reported a CPSC official as saying "We think the exposure risk is low, but why take the risk?"  The crayon situation may revive the 1980's CPSC - private sector conflicts over fiber-naming practices relating to asbestos found in children's play sand, as well as spark renewed interest in government regulation of other hazardous asbestos-like fibers, such as magnesio-anthophyllite. (6/26/00)

Crayons, while mainly composed of wax, use the mineral talc as a strengthener.  Tests showed levels of  tremolite, a natural asbestos contaminant of talc and a known carcinogen.  The crayon firms relied on their main supplier, R.T. Vanderbilt Co. Inc.'s assurances that their talc was asbestos-free.  However, the Mine Safety and Health Administration found on Feb. 16 between 20 and 50 percent asbestos in Vanderbilt's talc. Earlier federal studies in the 1980's revealed increasing numbers of Vanderbilt miners with asbestosis but Vanderbilt and two renegade government scientists succeeded in keeping the federal agencies from regulating the fibers found in its talc by trying to discredit the study. The current situation with asbestos-containing crayons however, is an example of perceived-risk among consumers, as the amounts found in crayons are still below the EPA limits for those found in everyday drinking water.

W.R. Grace Co., the former owner of a vermiculite mine in Libby, MT that is blamed for hundreds of asbestos-related deaths, repurchased the Libby site on July 21, 2000.  The company is trying to deny the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) access to the site for "insurance coverage" issues and concerns about what EPA wants to do with the land.  An EPA investigation into the Libby, MT site began earlier in July and EPA announced in a local newspaper, "It is clear that a person was likely exposed to asbestos fibers by simply living in Libby while the mine was operating."  The agency is encouraging residents and former mine employees to sign up for a free screening provided by EPA and W.R. Grace Co.  Grace's CEO has also pledged to pay medical expenses for workers with asbestos-related diseases. (7/21/00)

The state of California's Air Resources Board unanimously decided to ban the use of asbestos-containing rock for walking or driving surfaces.  The asbestos is derived from serpentine deposits found in the foothills of the Coast Range, the Cascades and the western slope of the Sierra Nevada.  While the local mining and construction industries protested the decision, only 1 percent of California's aggregate supply is being affected.  Ten years ago, the same board limited asbestos content in surface materials to 5 percent.  The move represents a common one by state and even federal regulatory bodies seeking to lower health risks to zero; this rule tightens the allowable asbestos content to the lowest detectable level -- 0.25 percent.  The board has ruled that all ultramafic rocks must be tested to meet the new standard.  A spokesman for the Construction Materials Association of California noted that there is no evidence that all ultramafic rocks have asbestos fibers in them. (7/25/00)

According to the EPA Asbestos Home Page:  "Asbestos is a problem because, as a toxic substance and a known carcinogen, it can cause several serious diseases in humans. Symptoms of these diseases typically develop over a period of years following asbestos exposure."  A 1989 ban on asbestos was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1991.  Currently, only six products that contain asbestos are subject to a ban by the EPA.  Because the EPA rule was overturned, it is up to the consumer to inquire about the presence of asbestos in particular products.  The EPA website provides information about where asbestos is commonly found, how it might invade groundwater, and other commonly asked questions.  According to the U.S. Public Health Service, there are four contributing factors to asbestos carcinogenicity including how respirable it is, its bio-persistence, mineralogy, and aspect ratio.  It is the aspect ratio which is most under debate, as long-thin fibers are thought to be the most toxic.

In Libby, 192 people have died over the last 40 years, and 375 more have been diagnosed with asbestos-related fatal diseases.  In early 1999,  26,000 former and present Libby residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the W.R. Grace Co. who owned the vermiculite mine for more than 40 years. Mining vermiculite produced a form of asbestos known as tremolite,  which is still found in quantities far above federal safety limits in the mine's tailing pipe.   There was also some concern that the vermiculite ore had contaminated other plants across the country to which it had been shipped.  After years of debating who had the authority to address the environmental and medical problems of Libby, and whether the statute of limitations on a criminal investigation had expired, the EPA finally insisted on May 26th that the site must be cleaned up.  Less than a week later the EPA announced that it had known about the asbestos situation in Libby since the mid-1980's and found that asbestos-related deathrates would be nearly 100%, yet had done nothing about it.  W.R. Grace Co. has been ordered to clean up the Montana site and is expected to finish this summer.

Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer, Washington Post, Sacramento Bee, Greenwire, EPA, EEnews, Congressional Research Service, and the Library of Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Contributed by 1999-2000 AGI/AAPG Geoscience Policy Intern Alison Alcott, 2000 AGI/AIPG Geoscience Policy Intern Audrey Slesinger, and Margaret Baker, Government Affairs Program.

Last updated October 23, 2000