News Releases

EPA Letter to Murray on Asbestos Raises as Many Questions as it Answers

Jan 21 2003

Withholding this information from the public on asbestos fits into a troubling pattern of secrecy for this White House

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) - Sen. Patty Murray has received a written response from EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to explain why the agency killed a plan to warn homeowners that their attics and walls might contain asbestos-contaminated insulation.

Murray had written to Whitman and to OMB Director Mitch Daniels on January 3rd after reading an investigative report that found the EPA was on the verge of warning the American public that an estimated 15-35 million homes, businesses and schools contain the insulation.

According to the investigative report, the EPA was also planning to declare a Public Health Emergency for the town of Libby, Montana, which is polluted from years of mining asbestos-contaminated vermiculite by W.R. Grace. The Libby declaration was also abruptly and inexplicably called off.

The five-page response from Whitman denied OMB directed EPA to spike the public health warnings, despite news reports to the contrary. It also claimed that the emergency declaration for Libby would not require the EPA to warn homeowners across the country, and that the two were "on parallel but different tracks."

"I appreciate Administrator Whitman's timely response and I look forward to hearing from Director Daniels about his office's involvement," said Murray. "But this letter raises as many questions as it answers."

First, Whitman still has not explained the nature or substance of OMB's involvement in the last-minute decision to kill the warnings. EPA had drafted news releases and lists of public officials to notify, but according to published reports, OMB intervened to block the announcement. The EPA has still not adequately explained the discrepancies between its portrayal of events and the body of evidence, reported in the news, that suggests other considerations.

Second, EPA's justification for not declaring a public health emergency in Libby represents, at best, tortured logic. How does EPA justify this distinction scientifically? And how can EPA argue, with a straight face, that the Zonolite insulation in Libby is different from Zonolite in Louisville?

Third, EPA has abdicated its responsibility by not making a real effort to understand the scope of the threat. Why can't the agency do a better job of estimating the number of homes, schools and businesses nationwide that contain Zonolite insulation? According to press reports, internal EPA memos cite an estimate of between 15 million and 35 million buildings may contain it.

Fourth, and most importantly, Adm. Whitman said EPA has "determined a course of action" for informing the millions of Americans who may live or work in buildings with asbestos-contaminated insulation. Whitman referenced a study conducted in Spring 2001 on vermiculite attic insulation in six Vermont homes and said the result of this study, and another study not yet begun, will help the agency decide whether to warn the public. But she did not explain how EPA would let people know about the dangers of asbestos in their homes, or how soon any notification would begin.

"The Administration's decision not to warn people about asbestos contaminated insulation is part of a troubling pattern. For the public to protect themselves and their families, they must know the truth," said Senator Murray.

"Withholding this information from the public on asbestos fits into a troubling pattern of secrecy for this White House.

"What was OMB's involvement? We still don't know. When will the public be told about the dangers of asbestos contaminated insulation? We still don't know. These are questions and the people deserve answers if they are to have faith that their government is doing everything possible to protect their health."