Murray Demands Answers to White House Decision to Spike Asbestos Warning

Jan 03 2003

EPA on the verge of issuing a warning to homeowners with asbestos insulation until White House stepped in

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Sen. Patty Murray is demanding an explanation for why the White House reportedly killed an EPA plan to warn the American public about the dangers of asbestos insulation, which may be in 35 million homes, businesses and schools.

An investigative report by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sunday, December 27, 2002) concluded that EPA had planned to issue the warning in April and had even composed press releases and compiled lists of public leaders to notify. But, due to intervention by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the announcement was never made.

The public warning was to accompany a declaration by the EPA of a public-health emergency in Libby, Montana, where asbestos-contaminated ore from a vermiculite mine has killed hundreds and sickened thousands of miners and their families. Ore from the Libby mine was shipped worldwide and is contained in insulation known as Zonolite, which is still present in millions of homes and businesses.

"We must end this failure to protect public health from the dangers of asbestos," Senator Murray said. "I would hope this Administration shares my commitment to ending the shameful legacy of inadequate protections against dangers posed by asbestos."

Murray introduced legislation in the last session of Congress to ban asbestos in the United States by 2005 and require an education campaign about Zonolite insulation within six months. She will reintroduce the legislation when Congress resumes.

The full text of Senator Murray's letter to Director of OMB Mitch Daniels follows. Murray also sent a similar letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.


January 3, 2003

Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. Director,Office of Management and Budget Executive Office Building Washington, D.C. 20503

Dear Mr. Daniels:

I have been closely following the Administration's response to the public health crisis caused by asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from a former W.R. Grace mine near Libby, Montana. The town has now been declared a Superfund site, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working aggressively to clean up homes and properties in the area contaminated with the harmful substance. Last year I spoke with EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman about this problem, and I appreciate her commitment to addressing the crisis in Libby.

However, this problem is not limited to one small town in Montana; it is national in scope. Over the years, asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was shipped to more than 300 industrial sites around the country to produce consumer products such as insulation, fertilizers and soil conditioners. Twenty-two of these sites have required additional analysis and cleanup to prevent harmful exposure for workers and the public.

I understand that last spring EPA was planning to issue a public health emergency in Libby and to notify homeowners nationwide because insulation made with vermiculite from the mine there, known as Zonolite, may still be in as many as 35 million homes, businesses and schools. Most home owners and repair workers outside of Libby remain unaware of the risks of exposure to Zonolite, which can contain harmful levels of tremolite asbestos.

Last year EPA never declared a public health emergency in Libby, reportedly in response to pressure from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). I find it very troubling that your office may have played a role in preventing EPA from declaring the emergency and from warning people about Zonolite. Given the known health risks from exposure to asbestos fibers and what has happened in Libby, I would expect the Bush Administration to share my commitment to preventing any additional, harmful exposures to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from this mine. Therefore, I ask you to provide a full and timely explanation for OMB's actions causing EPA to abruptly reverse course on declaring the emergency and notifying the public.

I would like answers to the following questions:

1. What were EPA's recommendations to OMB last spring to inform home owners and workers of potential dangers from exposure to Zonolite insulation?

2. To what extent was OMB involved in the decision whether to declare a public health emergency in Libby or to notify people nationwide of the dangers potentially posed by exposure to Zonolite?

3. What process did OMB use in reaching these decisions and who at OMB, specifically, was involved? Was Dr. John Graham, Administrator for OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, involved in these decisions and if so, how?

4. Which outside parties, such as corporations, non-governmental organizations or associations, did OMB consult with on these decisions? Did OMB consult with W.R. Grace?

5. What were OMB's final recommendations to EPA?

6. Who ultimately directed EPA not to issue a public health emergency in Libby last spring nor to proactively notify the public in a proper manner?

I remain very concerned that millions of workers and homeowners are unknowingly exposing themselves to harmful concentrations of asbestos when coming into contact with Zonolite. EPA's efforts to educate the public about this problem are currently passive and inadequate, for they remain limited to information on the agency's website.

Unfortunately, the federal government has a long legacy of failing to adequately protect people from exposure to asbestos, and W.R. Grace has a long legacy of withholding information about asbestos contamination from the public. The situation in Libby is a tragic testament to government inaction and corporate irresponsibility.

W.R. Grace documents show the company was aware of the problem as early as the 1960s, but chose not to warn consumers. By 1980, EPA knew the vermiculite from the W.R. Grace mine was contaminated with asbestos and that some workers were suffering from health problems comparable to those experienced by people exposed to asbestos. The EPA Inspector General's Report on Libby revealed that despite this knowledge, EPA chose in the 1980s to focus on efforts to ban asbestos in consumer products instead of addressing the problems with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby. This ban was overturned in court in 1991 because of an asbestos industry lawsuit, and the first Bush Administration decided not to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We must end this failure to protect public health from the dangers of asbestos. That is why I introduced legislation last Congress banning asbestos in the United States by 2005 and requiring an education campaign about Zonolite within 6 months. I am planning to introduce the legislation again in the 108th Congress.

I would hope this Administration shares my commitment to ending the shameful legacy of inadequate protections against dangers posed by asbestos. However, this Administration's commitment is certainly now in doubt given EPA's failure to issue the public health emergency in Libby last year and to warn the public about potential dangers from exposure to Zonolite.

I look forward to your response.

Patty Murray
U.S. Senator