The United States designed its chemical regulation system to keep businesses humming with little interference. That decision had health repercussions for ordinary Americans, who are left to carry the burden.
The Environmental Protection Agency took an unusual step last week: It opened a new period in which the public can comment on its proposed asbestos ban. The agency had gotten new information, officials said, including a series of ProPublica reports on dangerous working conditions in factories that use asbestos to make chlorine.
Asbestos has been long known to cause deadly cancers and other serious illnesses. While dozens of countries have outlawed the substance, the U.S. still imports hundreds of tons each year, mostly for use in chlorine manufacturing.
Last spring, the EPA proposed a ban on chrysotile, or white asbestos, the most common type. People had until July to submit comments. More than 150 did, the EPA said.
In their comments, the chlorine companies said that workers in their plants had handled asbestos safely for decades and that requiring manufacturers to quickly transition to newer, asbestos-free technology could cause a shortage of the chlorine used to disinfect drinking water.
Then, in October, ProPublica revealed that workers in a Niagara Falls, New York, plant were regularly exposed to asbestos until the facility closed in 2021 for unrelated reasons. Experts called the conditions described by workers “unacceptable” and “fraught with danger.” The company that ran the plant, OxyChem, said the workers’ accounts were not accurate but would not specify what information was incorrect. ProPublica’s report also detailed how chlorine companies have quietly fought against a ban for decades, even though they use modern, asbestos-free technology in some of their plants.
ProPublica later reported that workers at four other plants had observed unsafe practices involving asbestos at their facilities, too. One longtime janitor at an Alabama plant run by Olin Corp. said she was given no personal protective equipment, even while pregnant, as she scraped dried asbestos from bathroom floors. Olin did not return repeated calls or emails from ProPublica.
Last Friday, the EPA announced it was publishing additional information it had obtained from chlorine companies and the nonprofit Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization during meetings that took place in recent months. The agency also said it was publishing written comments submitted during that time.
ProPublica’s reports were among the subjects of the meetings and comments, the EPA said.
The submissions from the chlorine companies focused largely on the EPA’s proposed two-year timeline to comply with a ban, records show. The companies said that shortages of rare metals and other factors would make it difficult to transition to different technology that quickly. They also pushed back on an alternative plan that would give them five years if they complied with requirements for monitoring worker exposure to asbestos, saying that option was not technically feasible. They want at least 15 years to transition away from the toxic mineral.
Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization president Linda Reinstein was critical of the information from the chlorine companies and industry groups, some of which had been previously submitted to the EPA. “This ‘new information’ from industry is another desperate attempt to delay transitioning their archaic plants to modern technology,” she said in a statement.
OxyChem and Olin did not return emails from ProPublica.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization for the chlorine producers, told ProPublica that the companies had provided “data and information that outlines the multiple steps required for large manufacturing operations to begin conversion, including engineering design, permitting and regulatory approvals, delivery of critical components, construction and startup.” The group added: “Conversion to another technology is extremely capital intensive and will take many years to complete.”
Members of the public have until April 17 to comment on the material. The EPA has specifically requested feedback on its proposed timeline for implementing a ban, on the suggested exposure monitoring requirements and on the safety issues raised in ProPublica’s reports.
The agency — which was recently the subject of a Government Accountability Office report that found it consistently missed deadlines relating to chemical regulation — told ProPublica this week that it was still on track to finalize the rule in the fall.
Reinstein, in her statement, urged the agency to “move forward with a transition plan that puts people over profits.”
She and her organization are also continuing their push to get an even tougher asbestos ban through Congress. In years past, lawmakers have filed a bill named for Reinstein’s husband, Alan, who died from mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, both Oregon Democrats, said they plan to reintroduce the bill soon.