After years of lackluster regulation of the nation’s toxic chemicals, 2016 marked the first major overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) since it was passed in 1976. One goal was to identify 10 high-risk chemicals, including asbestos, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was charged with evaluating. Since then, things have gone a little amiss.
First, the EPA reinvented itself under pro-industry President Trump. Agency leadership was infiltrated by industry lobbyists, including Scott Pruitt and Nancy Beck, who now spearhead the programs they spent their entire careers trying to sue and shut down. Next, leadership weakened the law with its final framework. Most recently, uncertainty around the TSCA’s future mounted when EPA officials held several meetings with major chemical corporations.
The EPA’s decision on whether to restrict or ban asbestos fast approaches, but the substance’s fate remains – unfortunately – anyone’s guess. The nation’s top public interest groups now strive to get a better idea.
It’s Crunch Time
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), American Oversight, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wrote a letter that requested records of communications between the EPA and the chemical industry.
Key industry lobbyists like the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and The Chlorine Institute, companies including Occidental Chemical, and other players in the chlor-alkali industry are on the groups’ radar. Their request is for copies of emails, phone logs, meeting notes, and all other communications pertaining to the TSCA’s future impact on asbestos use.
“We are seeking to shed light on the role that those entities are playing in shaping the agency’s policy toward this dangerous substance,” the letter reads.
As internal documents have made clear in the past, the chemical industry has worked behind the scenes to keep asbestos legal for as long as we’ve known it to be deadly. Industry pressure overturned a 1989 motion to ban most asbestos-containing products, meaning asbestos continues to be imported (for industrial products) by the chlor-alkali industry at the astonishing rate of 350 metric tons per year. Anti-asbestos groups argue that Trump’s EPA has only exacerbated the problem.
“From his earliest decisions as EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt has repeatedly sided with polluters and against public health,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “It is important that Americans know just how much the chemical industry is pressuring Pruitt and the Trump administration to keep asbestos legal.”
Any Chance Advocates Will Like What They Find?
According to a recent EPA briefing, its recent activity denotes nothing sinister. Rather, the agency is “making great progress” in implementing the new law.
The briefing highlights 4 top priorities for 2018: restructuring fees for companies processing new or high-risk substances; using alternative, risk-based test methods; focusing more efforts on the first 10 chemical risk evaluations; and updating the TSCA inventory to accurately reflect chemicals in use or in production. Most notably, as part of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s “transparency initiative,” the EPA plans to make meetings and feedback about TSCA implementation as public as possible.
Nowhere, however, does the briefing mention asbestos banning under the TSCA. It only includes vague language about inviting the public to share input on the final framework and completing risk evaluations by late 2019. Could meaningful progress be made this year? It’s uncertain, but advocates hope for a whiff of something more clear-cut and promising.
“Administrator Pruitt has the chance to finally close one of the most tragic chapters in this decades-long public health crisis that has claimed hundreds of thousands of American lives and devastated their families,” said Linda Reinstein, co-founder and president of ADAO. “Nearly half of the companies in the chlor-alkali industry have stopped using asbestos, confirming there is no reason to allow its continued import and use. Americans deserve nothing short of an outright ban.”