Trump's EPA sparks controversy with new rule on asbestos

The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)
The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stands in Washington, D.C.

Unlike many other countries, the United States never banned asbestos use, though policymakers imposed strict regulations on the toxic chemical decades ago in response to research linking asbestos to lung cancer and mesothelioma, among other ailments.

And yet, as NBC News reported, Donald Trump's Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new rules that could allow asbestos to be used in new ways.

The EPA released the new proposal, known as a "significant new use rule," in June, detailing how companies can find new ways to use asbestos that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Some of the products that may now involve asbestos in the manufacturing process include adhesives, sealants, pipeline wrap, and several others.

The Wonkette headline stood out for me: "Who Had 'EPA Brings Back Asbestos' In The 2018 Pool?"

It's worth emphasizing that the EPA doesn't see it that way. A spokesperson for the agency has insisted to many news organizations that the latest moves are necessary to create "a regulatory basis to restrict manufacturing and processing for the new asbestos uses covered by the rule."

The EPA's press statement added, "The EPA action would prohibit companies from manufacturing, importing, or processing for these new uses of asbestos unless they receive approval from the EPA."

It's those last seven words, however, that are worth dwelling on. Why create a system in which the EPA can approve new uses of a dangerous carcinogen? Why leave the door open?

NBC News' report added:

The EPA's report comes after the agency conducted its first review of 10 chemicals, as required by a 2016 Obama-era amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires the agency to constantly reevaluate the harmfulness of toxic chemicals.But the way the EPA is approaching evaluating chemicals changed under the Trump administration and former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The agency now focuses on how chemicals potentially cause harm through direct contact in the workplace, not taking into account improper disposal or other means of contamination that could affect the public -- a huge win for chemical industry lobbyists.While the proposal does not appear to roll back regulations that are already in place, it opens the door to new uses for asbestos as long as companies notify the EPA at least 90 days in advance and are approved.

As recently as June, before he was forced from his post under a cloud of scandal, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement that he and his team were "moving forward to take important, unprecedented action on asbestos."

The fact remains, however, that banning any new uses for asbestos -- which is where the EPA was reportedly headed before Trump took office -- would be important and unprecedented action. This administration's latest move is something else.