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(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray testified on her legislation to ban deadly asbestos at a hearing of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee -- Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics, Risk, and Waste Management.

Senator Murray's remarks follow:

Senator Baucus, thank you for calling today's hearing on Libby, Montana and on the health and environmental problems caused by asbestos contamination from the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine there. Thank you also for giving me the opportunity to testify before this Subcommittee. I applaud the leadership you have shown on this issue on behalf of the people of Montana and the entire country.

I first became interested in this issue in 1999 because of the series of articles by Andrew Schneider about Libby in the Seattle-Post Intelligencer. I can relate to the people of Libby because my mother grew up in Butte, Montana. Like Libby, the main industry in Butte is mining. I know first hand that these communities believed the government was protecting them from health problems caused by air and water pollution from mining.

I also became interested in this issue because Libby is only 160 miles from Spokane, Washington, and many people from Libby have received medical treatment in Spokane. Last year, when I chaired a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on asbestos exposure and worker safety, Dr. Alan Whitehouse from Spokane testified. He has treated about 500 patients from Libby. While most people thought only miners and their families could be exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos from mining, many of his patients are sick just because they lived in Libby. Approximately 25 percent of his patients didn't work in the mine or live with someone who did. Twenty-four of his patients have died in the last 3 years, and five who died were sick ONLY from environmental exposure.

The issue is also relevant to my constituents because like most other states, Washington has many sites which processed Libby vermiculite that was contaminated with asbestos. The chart you see displayed shows all of the sites in the United States which received vermiculite from Libby. Of the approximately 300 sites which processed this mineral, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registries (ATSDR) have determined that 22 sites require further cleanup.

One of these sites is the former Vermiculite Northwest, Inc. and then W.R. Grace plant in Spokane. The plant began producing Zonolite insulation in 1951. Even though the plant closed down in the early 1970s, recent tests by EPA have found some soil samples from the site still have asbestos concentrations of up to 3 percent. EPA is strongly recommending that access to the site should be restricted almost 30 years after the plant closed down.

At many plants where vermiculite from Libby was processed, waste rock left over from the expansion process was given away for free. People used this free waste rock in their yards, driveways and gardens. The other picture you see shows Justin and Tim Jorgensen climbing on waste rock given out by Western Minerals, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the late 1970s. According to W.R. Grace records, this rock contained between 2 and 10 percent tremolite asbestos. This rock produced airborne asbestos concentrations 135 times higher than OSHA's current standard for workers. Thankfully, today neither Justin nor Tim has shown any signs of disease, but their risk of developing asbestos diseases, which have latency periods of 15 to 40 years, are increased from their childhood exposures.

Mr. Chairman I showed this picture several days ago at a press conference, and this morning I came into the office and received an email message from Izzi Jorgensen, who is the mother of the two boys in this picture. I want to read it to the committee this morning:

Greetings, Yes, please eliminate asbestos. Those two boys playing in the 'free rock' are my sons. Justin and Tim's father Harris Jorgensen suffered long and hard with asbestosis and lung cancer. He died June 22, 1991 at age 44. An autopsy shows asbestos in his lungs. We lost the case in Federal court. Like Harris said "We may not have gotten anything out of this, but maybe it will help some one else." At this time I wonder - Do my sons have to suffer also? It may be too late. Izzi (Isabel) Jorgensen

Today, people may still be exposed to harmful amounts of asbestos in vermiculite. Between 12 million and 35 million homes and businesses may have Zonolite insulation. This may be the case for up to 150,000 homes in Washington. EPA has also tested agricultural products -- soil conditioners and fertilizers -- made with vermiculite, and determined that some workers may have been exposed to dangerous amounts.

As I learned more about Libby, and how asbestos has ended up in products by accident, I was shocked to learn that asbestos is still being used in products on purpose. While some specific uses have been banned, the EPA's more sweeping ban was never put into effect because of a lawsuit backed by the asbestos industry.

As a result, new uses of asbestos were banned, but most existing uses were not banned. Today, asbestos is still used to make roofing products, gaskets, brakes and other products. In 2001, the U.S. consumed 13,000 metric tons of it. Asbestos is still entering the product stream in America, despite the known dangers to human health. In contrast, asbestos has been banned in at least 20 other countries.

Now it's time for the United States to ban asbestos, too. I want to ensure our government does all it can to minimize future suffering and death caused by asbestos. That is why yesterday we introduced the Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002. Senator Baucus, thank you for being an original cosponsor of this important legislation. I also appreciate the cosponsorship of Senators Cantwell, Dayton and Wellstone.

The Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002 has four parts which I would like to briefly mention. First, this bill protects the public by requiring the EPA to ban asbestos by 2005. Like the regulations EPA finalized in 1989 under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), companies may file for an exemption to the ban. EPA may issue the exemption if there is no substitute material available and the exemption won't pose an unreasonable risk of injury to public health or the environment.

I'd like to take a moment to point out to the Subcommittee the connection between what happened in Libby and EPA's efforts to ban asbestos. Last year, the EPA's Inspector General conducted an investigation into why the agency didn't do a better job of protecting the people of Libby. I was struck by one of the sections of the Inspector General's Report, in which a letter written by EPA in 1983 is quoted as follows, "...asbestos-contaminated vermiculite is considered a lower priority at this time than problems posed by friable asbestos-containing materials in school buildings and commercial and industrial uses of asbestos."

In 1979, EPA had issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that it intended to explore options to control asbestos under Section 6 of the TSCA. In 1982, EPA issued a reporting rule under Section 8(a) of TSCA to gather information about commercial and industrial uses of asbestos. EPA's proposed rule to ban asbestos was published in the Federal Register in January of 1986, and the final rule was published in 1989.

One of the reasons EPA did not spend more time focusing on asbestos-contaminated vermiculite was that the agency was working on the asbestos phase out and ban rule. Unfortunately, this rule was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991. There is a clear relationship between EPA's efforts to ban asbestos and the fact that problems in Libby were overlooked. I am saddened that EPA didn't spend more time focused on Libby in part because of a competing effort to limit asbestos exposure -- an effort which ultimately failed.

Second, the bill requires EPA to conduct a pubic education campaign about the risks of asbestos products. We need to warn people that their home insulation -- if made with vermiculite -- may be contaminated with asbestos. While EPA has agreed to remove vermiculite insulation from homes in Libby, the agency currently has no plans to do this nationwide.

The Ban Asbestos in America Bill requires EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission to educate consumers about how best to handle this insulation within 6 months. The Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2002 also requires EPA to conduct a survey to determine which foreign and domestic products consumed in the United States today have been made with asbestos. EPA has estimated as many as 3,000 products still contain the mineral.

Third, the legislation invests in research, tracking and treatment of asbestos diseases. It requires a national mesothelioma registry, which would be coordinated with the A.T.S.D.R.'s existing efforts pertaining to Libby as well as with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The bill also authorizes funding for 7 mesothelioma treatment centers nationwide to improve treatments for and awareness of this fatal cancer.

Finally, the bill requires EPA to expand its Blue Ribbon Panel on Asbestos to address issues beyond the six regulated forms of asbestos, as EPA originally promised in its response to the Inspector General.

Over the years, asbestos has taken a staggering toll on our country. We have recently been reminded of the dangers posed by asbestos because of concerns about asbestos exposure from the dust and debris caused by the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. Had this country acted swiftly to ban asbestos when public health evidence about its dangers first emerged, the Towers would not have been built with any asbestos at all. Now we'll need to wait several decades to determine whether asbestos exposures in New York will cause asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma for first responders and residents.

I hope this Subcommittee, which has primary jurisdiction over the Ban Asbestos in America Act, will consider holding a hearing on the bill in the near future.