Asbestos is in the hot seat these days and is receiving significant attention from both US EPA and Congress.  In particular, US EPA continues to evaluate asbestos risks under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and has imposed additional regulations, while Congress is currently considering an outright ban on the substance.

On April 25, 2019, US EPA issued a final Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) under Section 5 of TSCA to prevent certain discontinued uses of asbestos from re-entering the marketplace without a review by EPA.  The rule essentially restricts manufacturing, importing or processing of asbestos for certain target uses that are neither ongoing, nor already prohibited under TSCA.

The SNUR covers a number of target uses for which US EPA “has found no information” indicating that they are ongoing: adhesives, sealants, and roof and non-roof coatings; arc chutes; beater-add gaskets; cement products; extruded sealant tape and other tape; filler for acetylene cylinders; certain friction materials; high-grade electrical paper; millboard; missile liner; packings; pipeline wrap; reinforced plastics; roofing felt; separators in fuel cells and batteries; vinyl-asbestos floor tile; woven products; any other building material; and “any other use of asbestos that is neither ongoing nor already prohibited under TSCA.”  While the SNUR does not actually prohibit these uses, none of the uses may return to the marketplace without EPA review of their potential risks to health and the environment.   A party must submit a “significant new use notice” to US EPA at least 90 days prior to commencing manufacturing, importing or processing of asbestos for such uses.

While the Rule effectively expands the number of restricted uses, the SNUR has raised concerns as it essentially removes the uses from US EPA’s pending TSCA risk evaluation of asbestos, which is being performed pursuant to EPA’s December 2016 listing of substances under Section 6(b) of TSCA for which a final risk assessment is due in December 2019.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering a ban on all uses of asbestos (which is already banned in more than 60 countries).  Most recently on May 8, 2019, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s environmental panel held a hearing on H.R. 1603 (the “Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act of 2019” introduced on March 7, 2019).  The Bill seeks to amend TSCA to require US EPA to ban importation and use of asbestos in the US within one year of enactment, broaden EPA’s definition of asbestos to include additional fiber types, and also require that EPA and the Departments of Health and Human Services and Labor assess and report to Congress regarding existing “legacy” asbestos in residential, commercial, industrial, public, and school buildings to determine quantity and risk.

Although there is reportedly openness to a bipartisan compromise on the Democratic-sponsored bill, concerns have been raised as to its application, including the effect upon the chlorine industry and that it may hamper the industry’s ability to manufacture chlorine for public water supply use and healthcare facility sanitization.  For instance, on May 8, 2019, the American Water Works Association submitted comments to the Committee noting that “more than forty percent of the chlorine supply in the United Sates is dependent on production methods that rely on asbestos.” Further, the relatively short 12-month transition period has been cited as another concern, as well as the associated costs.

While US EPA’s TSCA risk evaluation remains ongoing through the end of 2019 (and possibly beyond) and Congress considers the ban proposed in H.R. 1603 in committee and markup, asbestos will continue to received increased attention.  Industries that deal with asbestos-containing materials would be advised to consult with technical and legal experts to consider the implications of these measures, as well as look for additional opportunities to advocate its position to decision makers as these measures are considered and finalized.