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Asbestos Ban Gets House Panel’s OK, But Senate Fate Less Clear (1)

Nov. 19, 2019, 8:55 PMUpdated: Nov. 19, 2019, 10:25 PM

A House committee approved legislation Nov. 19 to ban asbestos but allow certain chemical manufacturers to transition away from use of the cancer-causing mineral.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved on a 47-1 vote H.R. 1603, an amended version of the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019. The bill would ban the mineral, with a few exemptions, within one year.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) encouraged his colleagues to vote for the amended bill saying it would better protected national security needs, recognize that a small amount of asbestos may be a naturally occurring contaminant in some mining operations, and protect the nation’s supply of chlorine and caustic soda—two chemicals that are used to make a multitude of other products.

Shimkus argued that the original bill would have threatened the nation’s needed supply of chlorine that’s produced, together with caustic soda, by chlor-alkali companies, which use asbestos to make equipment they need.

The amended bill allows such chemical manufacturers to import asbestos for up to five years and use it for up to 10 to allow them to transition to other manufacturing methods that do not use asbestos, said Shimkus, the top Republican on the panel’s Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee.

Passage of the bill would more promptly lead to a long-sought for ban of asbestos than would the ongoing process in which the Environmental Protection Agency is evaluating the minerals risks, Shimkus said.

Senate Fate Unclear

The bill now moves to the House floor for consideration, but its fate in the Senate is unclear. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) introduced a parallel bill, S. 717, in March, but it hasn’t moved.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) , chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and colleagues will review the amended House bill when it’s received, a committee aide said.

The House Energy panel’s approval of the bill comes 30 years after the Environmental Protection Agency banned many uses of asbestos. But in 1991, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit overturned EPA’s regulation.

More than 60 countries have banned asbestos, according to the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat.

Reporting Program

H.R. 1603 would establish a reporting program to require current importers, processors, and distributors to tell the EPA how much asbestos is in commerce, where it is, and how it is used.

The bill also would require the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to study risks presented by asbestos that remains in homes, businesses, factories, schools, and other buildings.

And the bill would include Libby amphibole asbestos as one of the forms of the mineral it covers. EPA’s regulations haven’t typically covered this form of asbestos, although it can be found in many buildings’ insulation.

Initial Reactions

The American Chemistry Council praised the amended bill, saying it safeguartded tyhe nations supply to chlorine.

“Chlorine is a building block chemical that provides vital public health benefits and makes modern day technology possible. This includes safe drinking water from the tap, 88% of the 100 most common pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, and agricultural inputs, among many other products,” the council said.

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization also praised the committee’s action.

“This comprehensive bill will protect workers, consumers, and children from being exposed to the deadly threat of asbestos and stop hundreds of tons of asbestos from entering the United States,” said Linda Reinstein, president of that asbestos organization and widow to the bill’s namesake.

The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) also praised the committee’s approval.

Building and other materials that contain asbestos have been a concern of the IAFF for years as fire fighters are particularly susceptible to exposure to these toxic substances during a fire, said Doug W. Stern, director of strategic campaigns for the association.

“Fire fighters are proud to endorse the Reinstein Act and remain committed to its enactment,” he said.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) cast the sole vote against the bill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at prizzuto@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com