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Asbestos Policy (8-20-07)

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Libby, Montana, home of the now defunct W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine, has brought a renewed interest in the health dangers of asbestos. A series of Seattle Post-Intelligencer articles beginning in November 1999 about the Libby vermiculite mine and the nearly 200 asbestos-related deaths there over the last 40 years prompted a public outcry, two federal investigations into government agencies' failure to warn Libby residents and workers, declaration of a Superfund site, and a renewed interested in banning asbestos products. Asbestos is classified as a Group A carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) due to health risks associated with inhalation, including lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis. Despite bipartisan efforts, little progress was made in the 109th Congress on the issue of asbestos. While the new leadership of the 110th Congress may prove to be more successful, the few legislative efforts in 2007 have stalled thus far.

Recent Action

On June 12, 2007 the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee met to expound on the health effects of asbestos exposure and proper mitigation measures to limit exposure. The committee invited members of the academic community, asbestos health advocacy groups, and environmental organizations. In addition to discussion about general asbestos health consequences, the Senators and panelists also discussed the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007 (S. 742), which was introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA). The bill would amend the Toxic Substances and Control Act of 1976 by "prohibiting persons from importing, manufacturing, processing, or distributing in commerce asbestos-containing products." Although the bill has twenty co-sponsors, mostly Democrats, the bill has yet to advance to a vote. However, on August 2, 2007, the proposed bill was placed on the Senate calendar for discussion, which may indicate momentum for moving the measure forward. (8/20/07)

Previous Action


Background

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." The web site provides information about where asbestos is commonly found, and other commonly asked questions. Asbestos is classified as a Group A carcinogen by the EPA due to health risks associated with inhalation. Primary health concerns include lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the thin membranes lining the abdominal cavity and surrounding internal organs), and asbestosis (a specific form of lung disease).

The EPA issued a rule prohibiting the manufacture, processing, and importation of most asbestos products in 1989 due to the related health problems; however, a 1991 ruling by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in response to a lawsuit brought by the American and Canadian asbestos industries, essentially negated the rule. The lawsuit argued that the EPA had not thoroughly studied alternatives to an asbestos ban. In the 107th Congress, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing to look into asbestos issues, with the possible goal of beginning to form regulations for the production and use of the substance.

In a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that revoked 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. A 2002 report released by Sebago Associates, which was commissioned by the American Insurance Association, estimated the cost of asbestos claims resulted in more than 60 companies filing for bankruptcy. Momentum has been building in the past few years on Capitol Hill to pass legislation regarding asbestos-related claims.

Libby, Montana
In Libby, Montana, home to the W.R. Grace and Co.'s closed vermiculite mine, nearly 200 people have died over the last 40 years, and more than 375 additional people have been diagnosed with asbestos-related fatal diseases. A byproduct of the vermiculite mining was the release of tremolite, a form of asbestos, into the air. In addition, there is concern that vermiculite ore shipped from Libby across the country may have contaminated other plants as well.

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 26, 1999, 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 death rates would be nearly 100%, yet had done nothing about it. This spurred the EPA to request an outside agency to perform an audit of the activities surrounding the mine, which was released in April of 2001, one day after W.R. Grace filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. On October 23, 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the addition of the Libby site to the National Priority List for Superfund sites.

Abestos legislation in the 108th Congress focused on two key bills. One was Senator Patty Murray's (D-WA) bill called the Ban Asbestos in America Act S.1115, which would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban asbestos in two years, conduct a public awareness campaign about asbestos, invest in research and treatment of asbestos diseases, and issue a study into the non-regulated forms of asbestos by the National Academies and the EPA's Blue Ribbon Panel. Henry Waxman (D-CA) introduced the companion bill HR 2277 in the House. The bill never made it out of the committee stage.

Asbestos legislation in the 109th Congress had little success. Early, in May 2005, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the costly FAIR Act (S. 852), which addresses asbestos victims' medical needs. The bill would halt asbestos litigation by eliminating court cases altogether and instead directly compensating victims from $140 billion fund created from manufacturing and insurance company payments. While the bill received support from prominent Republicans, including President Bush and then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), it did not even make it for a full vote on the Senate floor.

In early 2005, the 109th Congress also passed a unanimous vote to make April 1st National Asbestos Awareness Day. The day is so named to increase understanding in the public conscience of asbestos-related health consequences.

Additional information from the 108th Congress.

Sources: Seattle Post Intelligencer, Washington Post, Star Tribune, Sacramento Bee, Greenwire, EPA, EEnews, Congressional Research Service, The New York Times, SF Gate, The Billings Gazette, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Library of Congress.

Contributed by David R. Millar 2004 AGI/AAPG Fall Semester Intern, Anne Smart, 2005 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, and Sargon de Jesus, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's Update on Asbestos for the 108th and 109th Congresses.

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

Last updated on August 20, 2007.


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