WASHINGTON – Top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency pushed through a measure to review applications for using asbestos in consumer products, and did so over the objections of EPA's in-house scientists and attorneys, internal agency e-mails show.
The clash over the proposal exposes the tensions within the EPA over the Trump administration's efforts to roll back environmental rules and rewrite other regulations that industries have long fought.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral and known carcinogen, was once common in insulation and fireproofing materials, but today most developed countries ban it. The United States still allows limited use in products including gaskets, roofing materials and sealants.
The proposed new rule would create a new process for regulating uses of asbestos, something the EPA is obliged to do under a 2016 amendment to a toxic substances law.
The EPA says it is toughening oversight. However, the way its new rule is written has spawned a spirited debate over whether it will actually make it easier for asbestos to come back into more widespread use. Consumer groups say the agency should be looking for ways to prohibit asbestos entirely.
"The new approach raises significant concerns about the potential health impacts," wrote Sharon Cooperstein, an EPA policy analyst, in one of the e-mails. She, along with a veteran EPA scientist and a longtime agency attorney, said the proposal as designed left open the possibility that businesses could start using asbestos in some cases without getting the government's assessment, putting the public at risk.
Andrew Wheeler, EPA's acting administrator, said the EPA's plan would make it more difficult to use asbestos in products. The EPA, he wrote on Twitter, "is proposing a new rule that would allow for the restriction of asbestos manufacturing and processing of new uses of asbestos."
The new EPA proposal is called a "significant new-use rule" that sets out the guidelines for what types of asbestos uses the federal government considers risky enough to evaluate and perhaps restrict or ban.
The internal EPA e-mails indicate that top EPA officials sought a last-minute change in the language of the rule.
"Upper management asked us to take a different approach," wrote Robert Courtnage, an associate chief in the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, in an April 25 e-mail to 13 members of an agency group working on the proposal. Specifically: Rather than call for all new uses of asbestos to come before the EPA for a risk review, the rule would include just 15 specific uses that would trigger a federal assessment.
Critics of the rule argue that limiting the review to 15 uses means other potential uses would avoid examination.
Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts is leading an effort among Democratic state attorneys general to fight the asbestos plan, calling it a threat to human health.
"In recent years, tens of thousands have died from mesothelioma and other diseases caused by exposure to asbestos and other dangerous chemicals," she said. "If the Trump administration's erosion of federal chemical safety rules continues, it will endanger our communities and the health of all Americans."