Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule that tightens restrictions on the use of asbestos-containing products in the United States. Made in response to the wave of criticism the EPA received last summer, the ruling makes adjustments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), forcing companies to gain prior approval from the agency before importing certain items for commercial sale or introducing them into domestic manufacturing processes. The EPA promises to evaluate these items in order to further restrict their use or ban them from the marketplace altogether. The agency expanded the scope of the rule that was first unveiled last summer by adding four new categories of products and a “catchall” category that would require the review of any asbestos uses not previously noted. Under the final rule, 19 asbestos-containing products including adhesives, sealants, roofing felt, as well as millboard, pipeline wrap, reinforced plastics, and vinyl-asbestos floor tile will be prohibited from entering the market without a risk evaluation by the EPA. Additionally, all five uses of asbestos previously banned under the 1989 law, such as rollboard and flooring felt, will remain prohibited. EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that before this decision was made, the EPA didn’t have the authority to wholesale prevent or restrict certain asbestos-containing products from being reintroduced into the market. This final rule would effectively close the loophole previously left in the partial ban that was enacted into legislation almost 30 years ago, but for many environmental advocacy groups, this move still isn’t enough. Linda Reinstein, president of Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, told The New York Times the ruling was “toothless,” and that it doesn’t stop raw asbestos from being imported into the United States. According to the recent U.S. Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries report, 300 tons of raw asbestos was imported in 2017 and almost all was used by the chloralkali industry. This news comes just weeks after Wheeler testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, saying he’d issue an outright ban on asbestos. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, denounced the ruling, saying it was a “complete betrayal of that commitment.” Pallone in a statement: “It does nothing to restrict ongoing uses of asbestos…instead, it provides a pathway to market for uses that had previously been phased out, such as in floor tiles and insulation.” The EPA says it will take at least 60 days for the final rule to go into effect.
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Fast Company recently reported on the potential comeback of one of the most infamous building materials of recent memory. Asbestos is now legally allowed back into U.S. manufacturing under a serious of loopholes by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Fast Company reported, on June 1, the EPA authorized a “SNUR” (Significant New Use Rule) that allowed the distribution of products containing asbestos on a case-by-case basis. According to Fast Company, the EPA's recently released report detailing its new framework for evaluating the risk of its top prioritized substances states that the agency will "no longer consider the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments." This news comes after the EPA reviewed its first batch of 10 chemicals under the 2016 amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which requires the agency to continually reevaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals in lieu of removing them from the market or placing new restrictions on their use. The SNUR greenlights companies to use toxic chemicals like asbestos without consideration about how they will endanger people who are indirectly in contact with them. Asbestos was widely used in building insulation up until it was completely banned in most countries in the 1970s. The U.S. severely restricted its use without completely outlawing it. As Fast Company covered, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) revealed in April that asbestos-related deaths now total nearly 40,000 annually, with lung cancer and mesothelioma being the most common illnesses in association with the toxin. Healthy Building Network (HBN), an environmental advocacy group, told Fast Company that the fibrous material poses a major health risk for everyone exposed to it, including those who mine it, those who handle it in industrial facilities, as well as people near or inside renovation and construction projects where it’s being used. HBN’s Board President Bill Walsh said that the chlor-alkali industry is the only industry in the country that still uses asbestos, reportedly importing about 480 tons of the carcinogen each year from Russia and Brazil. Walsh pointed out to Fast Company that chlorine-based plastics are commonly found in building-product materials and that “virtually all” asbestos in the U.S. is used in the industrial process to make chlorine. This includes PVC and vinyl plastics, which is largely found in the creation of pipes, tiles, flooring, adhesives, paints, and roofing products. Though the EPA is now easing its regulations against integrating the harmful toxin and others like it under the Trump administration, it will largely be the responsibility of local and state governments, as well as companies and informed consumers to counter these new federal moves. Walsh told Fast Company it’s up to sustainable building-product manufacturers and ultimately, architects to pressure the market. “Architects really set the pace of design, in terms of aesthetics and materials that we like,” he told Fast Company. “If they start to incorporate health-based criteria into their palette, it could really have an influence on what the manufacturers produce.” Earlier last month, The Washington Post noted that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the ADAO had discovered a controversial post on Russian asbestos exporter Uralasbest’s Facebook page showing photos of company pallets stamped with a seal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s face. As The Post covered, Trump has long been vocal about his skepticism about the harmful effects of asbestos, claiming in his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, that anti-asbestos efforts were “led by the mob.” The Post uncovered how in 2012, he tweeted that the World Trade Center might not have burned had the fire-retardant material not been removed from the towers. It’s estimated that 400 tons of asbestos fiber went into the structures before the developers stopped it from being used further in 1971. The EPA told The Washington Post it will conduct further studies on the first 10 chemicals under the amended TSCA and final risk evaluations will published in December 2019.
When Hurricane Harvey strenghtened and redirected toward Houston, refineries and other petrochemical companies began a frantic scramble to shut down facilities before impact. This process in itself produces notoriously high emissions (a lesson learned time and again from other hurricanes that have hit the Gulf Coast hard like Katrina and Ike), but the Texas metropolis faces another unique problem—Harris County and environs are home to some of the most densely-polluted superfund sites in the country, a legion of petrochemical waste pits and ponds monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 13 of the total 41 sites were flooded in Harvey's fallout, with the EPA unable to access many of the city's sites, as reported by the Associated Press last Thursday. By Saturday, the EPA had examined two sites in Corpus Christi, found no flooding or leakage, and blasted the AP's report in a public statement – notably without providing evidence to the contrary. In their exclusive, the Associated Press described the "acrid smell of creosote" filling the air in a neighborhood situated between two superfund sites, the Sikes Disposal Pits and French LTD. They also took video from a boat peering into the 3.3-acre Highlands Acid Pit nearby—entirely covered by the roiling San Jacinto River, dredging up open toxic sludge. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston, levels of a carcinogen called benzene reached 324 parts per million, above the level at which safety workers are federally required to wear breathing equipment. Scott Frickel, an environmental sociologist at Brown University's Superfund Research Program, is concerned that the coverage of Houston's post-Harvey recovery has been overwhelmingly focused on Superfund sites, important though they are. He has examined the response of federal regulatory agencies like the EPA to similar problems after Hurricane Katrina, the largest in the agency's history at that time. A potentially greater danger, he argues, are the small, scattered industrial facilities owned by corporations and private entities. In a study, Frickel and others found that 90% of historically existing industrial facilities don't appear on regulatory hazardous site lists. Although there's no certainty all these sites are contaminated, many probably are, and account for a large margin of undocumented emissions. Frickel explained: "In part these sites are 'missing' from regulatory oversight either because they are small enough to skirt the current reporting requirements or larger facilities that closed down prior to 1980's when CERCLA regulations began and were redeveloped into some other land use. Also, it may be worth noting emissions reporting now is voluntary." Their omission explains – in part, at least – why the EPA ignored historically industrial areas of New Orleans during the long recovery from Katrina, allowing the city to repurpose those same areas for housing reconstruction without risk studies carried out beforehand. This feeling was echoed by Billy Fleming from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, albeit with a concern about larger facilities. Fleming remarked that with facilities in almost every neighborhood of the city, he'd be hard-pressed to think of a place where residents shouldn't be concerned about pollutants. Superfund sites aside, the EPA is not required to monitor emissions from those larger petrochemical facilities. But based on past precedent, we can expect any data provided by those 500-plus facilities with potential spillage to be sparse and unreliable. Fleming also broke down the legacy of urban sprawl and superfund sites on Houston in a recent Guardian article and on Twitter: Another point raised by Frickel was that, with the proliferation of private wells in Houston (also largely unregulated), any hazardous floodwaters that infiltrate them may pose additional threats, unless there was a commitment to chemical monitoring. The long-term health consequences of a flood as devastating as Harvey's are vast, ranging from breathing difficulty to liver cancer, and therefore difficult to measure at an epidemiological scale. Flood-induced mold is identifiable as an immediate nuisance for respiratory reasons; New Orleans residents reported a "Katrina cough" years after the storm. The secondary disaster, other than immediate emissions from the shutdown of petrochemical facilities, are the chemical releases produced during the cleanup itself. These are wide-ranging and poorly understood: one example is the unexamined health outcomes of itinerant immigrant workers brought in to move debris and demolish damaged homes who are exposed to substances like asbestos from old buildings and vinyl chloride from newer ones. Because they move on to the next job in the next city, any health data disappears with them. As we look at preventing human-made disasters like Harvey's ruinous flooding from a planning standpoint, watchdogs, advocacy groups, and experts should be closely watching the EPA and the Trump administration's attentiveness to environmental regulations as the chemicals continue their slow, inexorable spread through the water supply and air of affected areas.
Hurricane Sandy caused substantial damage to wastewater and drinking water treatment systems across the tri-state area. Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to provide a total of $569 million to New York and New Jersey to make wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities more resilient to withstand the effects of future storms. As Michael Shapiro, EPA Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator, pointed out in a media call, "Sewage treatment plants are on the waterfront so are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels." The funding will be provided through grants to states that will then be distributed primarily to local communities as low or no interest loans. “Going forward we’re encouraging local governments to submit proposals for green infrastructure and that rely on natural features to prevent flooding,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck in an announcement. The agency also anticipates that this funding will result in 6,000 short-term construction jobs.
President Obama is expected to announce Gina McCarthy (above, right) as the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency and Ernest Moniz (above, left) as the Secretary of Energy. McCarthy now serves as an assistant administrator at the EPA where she oversees regulating air pollution, including helping to double fuel-efficiency standards for cars, according to NPR. Moniz is currently a nuclear physicist at MIT, where he directs the university's Energy Initiative, according to the Washington Post. He has been a proponent of alternative energy sources, but some environmentalists are wary of his support for natural gas and "fracking." (Photo: Courtesy MIT / EPA)