Hundreds of residents of Libby were sickened by exposure to asbestos from a vermiculite mine near town. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has opened the regulatory door to new asbestos products in the United States, despite ongoing legal battles by thousands of Montanans sickened or killed by asbestos-related diseases.

The move came as a surprise to Kalispell attorney Roger Sullivan, who represents about 2,000 clients in the Libby area injured by asbestos mining and use there.

“History teaches us that risks should be assessed before exposure occurs, not after disease appears,” Sullivan said. “I’d be concerned about unassessed risks going forward.”

On June 1, EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics released a proposed Significant New Use Rule that would allow new uses of asbestos after the agency evaluates the risks, select studies, and best available science. But that new rule does not include data from legacy uses of asbestos already shown to be hazardous.

The agency stated it would do risk evaluations only on new methods of manufacturing, processing or distributing asbestos “rather than reaching back to evaluate the risks associated with legacy uses, associated disposal and legacy disposal.” That includes about 21 million tons of asbestos-tainted materials annually deposited in hazardous landfills and regular dumps.

“Given the well-established carcinogenicity of asbestos for lung cancer and mesothelioma, EPA has decided to limit the scope of its systemic review to these two specific cancers with the goal of updating or reaffirming the existing unit risk,” the EPA announcement continued. “No clear association was found for drinking water asbestos exposure and cancer.

"Dermal (skin) exposures may cause non-cancerous skin lesions. Since neither oral or dermal exposures are expected to contribute to the risks of lung cancer and mesothelioma, which are the basis of the 1988 cancer unit risk, exposures from the oral and dermal routes will not be assessed. These inhalation hazards will be evaluated based on the specific exposure scenarios identified for workers, consumers and general population where applicable.”

Asbestos hasn’t been mined or produced in the United States since 2002. Around the world, 55 countries have banned asbestos. In January, Canada announced it would ban the use, sale or export of its asbestos resources in 2019.

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The 2016 Frank J. Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act was expected to lead to eventual banning of asbestos in the United States. EPA designated it as one of the first chemicals it would review under the new law.

However, the review process made a full reversal from its original focus under the Obama Administration. While the initial direction was headed toward a more comprehensive ban of asbestos, former EPA Director Scott Pruitt specifically authorized consideration of future new uses before he resigned amid internal scandal investigations in July.

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U.S. companies imported about 300 metric tons of asbestos in 2017, mainly from Russia and Brazil. Asbestos imports in the first four months of 2018 jumped almost four-fold compared to the same period in 2017, according to International Trade Commission reports reviewed by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization. Last November, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., co-sponsored a bill to ban importation or sale of asbestos.

The EPA announcement states current uses include sheet gaskets for equipment used to make titanium dioxide and vehicle brake shoes for oilfield equipment, cement additives, woven products and automotive brakes and linings.

The asbestos-laden vermiculite mined in Libby was largely used as insulation and fire-proofing material for building construction. Nearly a million houses in the United States had asbestos-contaminated insulation from Libby’s vermiculite mine installed in their attics.

Montana’s state government has already paid at least $26 million in damages to victims of Libby asbestos exposure, and this spring the state’s insurance agency at the time was found liable for an additional $43 million. The lawsuit involves claims that Montana state inspectors failed to warn Libby residents about the danger of asbestos exposure from vermiculite mining and milling in their town between the 1950s and 1980s. The mine was originally operated by Universal Zonolite and Insulation Co., and eventually became W.R. Grace and Co.

Health problems with the Libby Mine showed up as early as 1943, when a state inspection found asbestos dust exposure greatly exceeded safety limits. Another inspection in 1956 concluded the air was “of considerable toxicity,” as noted in the judge’s decision. And state-issued death certificates for at least three Libby Mine workers listed asbestos-related health problems as the cause of death. Federal inspectors added their warnings of dangerously high asbestos exposure starting in 1971.

President Donald Trump has received praise from Russian asbestos exporter Uralabest, which posted Facebook pictures of its asbestos shipping crates printed with an image of Trump. In his New York real estate development career, Trump also criticized restrictions on asbestos use, arguing in his 1997 book “The Art of the Comeback” that asbestos opposition “was led by the mob, because it was often mob-related companies that would do the asbestos removal.”

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