By ANDREW SCHNEIDER
Post-Intelligencer SENIOR CORRESPONDENT
Just a month after the Senate with great fanfare passed the first legislation to ban disease-causing asbestos, public health officials, government regulators and advocates for asbestos victims are increasingly speaking out in opposition to the bill they once supported.
The bill originally imposed a total ban on asbestos, and that’s the version that the public health experts testified in support of.
But between the hearing in June and the Senate vote last month, ban supporters say the legislation was watered down to appease powerful lobbyists and industry. Many asbestos-containing products now aren’t covered by the ban at all.
Nonetheless, says Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ban is “a major step forward, and I passionately wish it covered all asbestos products. If I was just Patty Murray and I didn’t have to worry about getting other votes or a Republican president or that I have a one-vote majority in the United States Senate, I’d have a 100 percent ban,” Murray said last week.
Staffers for Murray and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who co-sponsored the legislation, insist that the Environmental Protection Agency “fully supports the bill as passed” and the agency’s personnel were closely involved throughout the process.
Not so, say agency scientists and the EPA’s legislative office. While the EPA said it had “no public position on the legislation,” documents obtained by the Seattle P-I show the agency has “significant concern” that the ban doesn’t go far enough.
In a draft of a letter prepared for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which will hold the hearings on the Senate-passed bill, the EPA quickly went to the issue that is concerning much of the public health community: “To protect public health and the environment from asbestos hazards, the ban should target any products in which asbestos is intentionally added or knowingly present as a contaminant,” read the evaluation, which was to be signed by EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.
But last month, the White House Office of Management and Budget rejected the entire document and told the EPA it could not submit it. Government scientists charged that the OMB action was another example of the White House putting politics over science.
But the EPA did not buckle.
In comments prepared this week for Congress, the EPA scientists repeated that the ban should apply to “any product to which asbestos is deliberately added or used, or in which asbestos is otherwise present in any concentration.”
This definition is precisely what businesses, road builders, the owners of mines and pits where asbestos-contaminated sand, stone and ore is still dug, managed to get deleted.
The lobbyists also wanted to control how the research the legislation demanded would be done.
The bill says that a study would be done to collect scientific evidence to determine the cancer-causing hazard to health from products not covered by the ban.
“I’ve got to tell you, (industry lobbyists) tried to back me off the study more times then you can know,” Murray said.
“The Stone, Sand and Gravel Association demanded their own scientists do the study, be at the table. No way,” Murray said. “If you put that in here, I’m walking away from it.”
What the bill won’t do
Here are some of the effects of the last-minute changes in the Senate bill:
# An epidemiologist with the Connecticut health department told the Consumer Product Safety Commission earlier this year that asbestos was found in modeling clay that children were using in art classes. The art clay, the health official wrote, contained asbestos-contaminated talc from the R.T. Vanderbilt talc mines in upstate New York. Though federal health investigators documented the presence of asbestos in that mine decades earlier and scores of workers have been sickened or killed from exposure to asbestos in the talc, the Senate ban would not prevent the tainted powder from being sold.
# Along the Iron Range in northern Michigan and Minnesota, waste from the taconite iron mines is contaminated with asbestos. Miners with asbestosis and the fast-killing mesothelioma are never far from tanks of oxygen. Elaborate marketing plans obtained by the P-I show how the taconite industry plans to sell the mining waste across the Midwest for construction of roads, airports, bridges and other public products and to claim that the product is free of asbestos. The current legislation will do nothing to prevent that.
# Millions of homes and businesses have insulation in their walls and attics made from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore. Hundreds of miners and their family members have died and thousands more are ill from this Libby, Mont., vermiculite ore. Nothing in the law would keep the mine from being reopened and the tainted ore again sold in scores of products. Nor will the Senate effort restrict or even demand monitoring of other mines that are today producing vermiculite.
Murray says the education provision of the bill will tell people of these risks, but some of the witnesses who testified for the ban say that isn’t enough.
“The government knows that asbestos products not covered by the legislation can cause harm and would allow, and probably encourage, companies to continue selling contaminated products because they are exempt from the ban,” said Dr. Aubrey Miller, senior medical officer and toxicologist for the EPA.
Dr. Michael Harbut, who has diagnosed and treated thousands of asbestos victims, also testified for the bill and is now worried about the language.
“We need to be truthful with the public. This should be called the limited asbestos ban act,” said Harbut, who is co-director of the National Center for Vermiculite and Asbestos-Related Cancers at the Karmanos Cancer Institute.
Linda Reinstein, a mesothelioma widow and executive director of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said: “After all the years of effort by the physicians, scientists, victims and Senators Murray and Boxer, we cannot wind up with a ban that doesn’t include all asbestos. … We all knew that compromises had to be made to get this legislation passed but I didn’t anticipate that industry would successfully intervene at the last minute.”
The axiom that crafting legislation is like making sausage does little to convey the meticulous, high-pressure choreography between what lawmakers want their legislation to do and what industry lobbyists will permit. Murray and Boxer had to live with that reality.
For six years, Murray fought to get her colleagues in the Senate to ban asbestos. It made sense. People were dying by the thousands and the deaths of a new generation might be prevented. But industry and the Bush White House didn’t want the U.S. to follow 40 other countries and ban the importation, use and sale of the cancer-causing fibers. Lobbyists for America’s largest industries swarmed over Capitol Hill, called in IOUs and dumped millions of dollars to fight the ban.
But on Oct. 4, every U.S. senator voted to ban asbestos. That day, widows and friends toasted loved ones killed by asbestos.
Scientists and physicians who had helped educate the senator and her staff members called one another, many not believing that the ban finally was just House passage away from becoming law. But when the euphoria of winning waned and people actually read the bill, many of them realized that the legislation no longer contained the same protection they had testified about, and they started speaking out.
Bill Kamela, who is Murray’s senior staff person in the fight for the ban, left a voice mail message last week on the home phone of the EPA’s Miller.
Kamela questioned the accuracy of Miller’s views and ended the message with: “This disinformation campaign is not helpful to anybody and certainly not folks who want to stick around this administration and try to do the right thing at the end of the day.”
Murray blamed her aide’s action on “the frustration of having the bill mischaracterized … ”
As the staff continues to defend the quality of the bill, they say the “real threat” will come from Rep. John Dingell, who heads the House committee that will hold hearings on the bill early next month. They say the Michigan Democrat will bow to the auto industry to exclude asbestos-containing brake material from the ban. Dingell did meet with auto industry representatives last month, “but will do nothing to damage the bill,” a member of the committee staff said.
Almost all of the witnesses who had worked earlier to get the bill passed or to testify on its need were contacted repeatedly last week by Kamela, Bettina Poirier, staff director and chief counsel for Boxer’s committee on Environment and Public Works and other staff members.
“These people, especially Poirier, kept calling. She ordered me not to talk to anyone about my views on the bill. She told me that I was spreading disinformation, that the bill was not flawed,” Miller said.
Richard Lemen, a retired U.S. assistant surgeon general and former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has long fought for the ban and what Murray was trying to do.
Lemen and several of Murray’s other witnesses joined in a two-hour conference call with the Senate staff one evening last week. Three of the participants said Poirier screamed at Lemen for much of that time, trying to get him to change his mind.
“It was not pleasant,” Lemen said. “They were trying to get me to change my opinion, which I’m not going to do. This is a bad bill.”
Poirier said she wasn’t screaming at him.
“Maybe that’s how they interpreted it. I have a cold so my voice doesn’t sound exactly normal,” the senior aide explained.
“We were trying to help him … because they misunderstood what happened and we were trying to clear the air and support them.”
Lemen saw it differently.
“These staff people are the same ones who asked us to testify and now they’re the same people who are trying to shut us up. I’m not going to be quiet,” he said.
“The public will be given a false sense of hope and that, to me, is an outrage, As a result there are going to be thousands of people at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. No one knows how many will die.”
P-I senior correspondent Andrew Schneider can be reached at 206-448-8218 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Soundoff (9 comments)