27 December 2002
House budget office thwarts EPA warning on asbestos-laced insulation
WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency was on the
verge of warning millions of Americans that their attics and walls
might contain asbestos-contaminated insulation. But, at the last
minute, the White House intervened, and the warning has never been
agency's refusal to share its knowledge of what is believed to be
a widespread health risk has been criticized by a former EPA administrator
under two Republican presidents, a Democratic U.S. senator and physicians
and scientists who have treated victims of the contamination.
announcement to warn the public was expected in April. It was to
accompany a declaration by the EPA of a public health emergency
in Libby, Mont. In that town near the Canadian border, ore from
a vermiculite mine was contaminated with an extremely lethal asbestos
fiber called tremolite that has killed or sickened thousands of
miners and their families.
from the Libby mine was shipped across the nation and around the
world, ending up in insulation called Zonolite that was used in
millions of homes, businesses and schools across America.
public health emergency declaration had never been issued by any
agency. It would have authorized the removal of the disease-causing
insulation from homes in Libby and also provided long-term medical
care for those made sick. Additionally, it would have triggered
notification of property owners elsewhere who might be exposed to
the contaminated insulation.
insulation was sold throughout North America from the 1940s through
the 1990s. Almost all of the vermiculite used in the insulation
came from the Libby mine, last owned by W.R. Grace & Co.
a meeting in mid-March, EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman
and Marianne Horinko, head of the Superfund program, met with Paul
Peronard, the EPA coordinator of the Libby cleanup and his team
of health specialists. Whitman and Horinko asked tough questions,
and apparently got the answers they needed. They agreed they had
to move ahead on a declaration, said a participant in the meeting.
early April, the declaration was ready to go. News releases had
been written and rewritten. Lists of governors to call and politicians
to notify had been compiled. Internal e-mail shows that discussions
had even been held on whether Whitman would go to Libby for the
the declaration was never made.
by White House
and documents show that just days before the EPA was set to make
the declaration, the plan was thwarted by the White House Office
of Management and Budget, which had been told of the proposal months
the budget office and the EPA acknowledge that the White House agency
was actively involved, but neither agency would discuss how or why.
EPA's chief spokesman Joe Martyak said, "Contact OMB for the
office spokesperson Amy Call said, "These questions will have
to be addressed to the EPA."
said the budget office provided wording for the EPA to use, but
she declined to say why the White House opposed the declaration
and the public notification.
are part of our internal discussions with EPA, and we don't discuss
predecisional deliberations," Call said.
agencies refused Freedom of Information Act requests for documents
to and from the White House Office of Management and Budget.
budget office was created in 1970 to evaluate all budget, policy,
legislative, regulatory, procurement and management issues on behalf
of the president.
EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus, who worked for Presidents
Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, called the decision not to notify
homeowners of the dangers posed by Zonolite insulation "the
wrong thing to do."
the government comes across this kind of information and doesn't
tell people about it, I just think it's wrong, unconscionable, not
to do that," he said. "Your first obligation is to tell
the people living in these homes of the possible danger.
need the information so they can decide what actions are best for
their family. What right does the government have to conceal these
dangers? It just doesn't make sense."
he added, pressure on the EPA from the budget office or the White
House is not unprecedented.
who became the EPA's first administrator when the agency was created
by Nixon in 1970, said he never was called by the president directly
to discuss agency decisions. He said the same held true when he
was called back to lead the EPA by Reagan after Anne Gorsuch Burford's
from a White House staff member or the Office of Management and
Budget were another matter.
pressure could come from industry pressuring OMB or if someone could
find a friendly ear in the White House to get them to intervene,"
Ruckelshaus said. "These issues like asbestos are so technical,
often so convoluted, that industry's best chance to stop us or modify
what we wanted to do would come from OMB."
question about what to do about Zonolite insulation was not the
only asbestos-related issue in which the White House intervened.
January, in an internal EPA report on problems with the agency's
much-criticized response to the terrorist attacks in New York City,
a section on "lessons learned" said there was a need to
release public health and emergency information without having it
reviewed and delayed by the White House.
cannot delay releasing important public health information,"
said the report. "The political consequences of delaying information
are greater than the benefit of centralized information management."
was the White House budget office's Office of Information and Regulatory
Affairs that derailed the Libby declaration. The regulatory affairs
office is headed by John Graham, who formerly ran the Harvard Center
for Risk Analysis.
appointment last year was denounced by environmental, health and
public advocacy groups, who claimed his ties to industry were too
strong. Graham passes judgment over all major national health, safety
and environmental standards.
Dick Durbin, D-Ill., urged colleagues to vote against Graham's appointment,
saying Graham would have to recuse himself from reviewing many rules
because affected industries donated to the Harvard University Center.
physicians, 10 of them from Harvard, according to The Washington
Post, wrote the committee asking that Graham not be confirmed because
of "a persistent pattern of conflict of interest, of obscuring
and minimizing dangers to human health with questionable cost-benefit
analyses, and of hostility to governmental regulation in general."
requests for interviews with Graham or anyone else involved in the
White House budget office decision were denied.
was like a gut shot"
Horinko and some members of their top staff were said to have been
outraged at the White House intervention.
was like a gut shot," said one of those senior staffers involved
in the decision. "It wasn't that they ordered us not to make
the declaration, they just really, really strongly suggested against
it. Really strongly. There was no choice left."
and other staff members said Whitman was personally interested in
Libby and the national problems spawned by its asbestos-tainted
ore. The EPA's inspector general had reported that the agency hadn't
taken action more than two decades earlier when it had proof that
the people of Libby and those using asbestos-tainted Zonolite products
were in danger.
went to Libby in early September 2001 and promised the people it
would never happen again.
want everyone who comes in contact with vermiculite — from
homeowners to handymen — to have the information to protect
themselves and their families," Whitman promised.
pragmatists in the agency knew the administration was angered that
a flood of lawsuits had caused more than a dozen major corporations
— including W.R. Grace — to file for bankruptcy protection.
The suits sought billions of dollars on behalf of people injured
or killed from exposure to asbestos in their products or workplaces.
on Capitol Hill crafted legislation — expected to be introduced
next month — to stem the flow of these suits.
Whitman told her people to move forward with the emergency declaration.
Those in the EPA who respect their boss fear that Whitman may quit.
has taken heat for other White House decisions such as a controversial
decision on levels of arsenic in drinking water, easing regulations
to allow 50-year-old power plants to operate without implementing
modern pollution controls and a dozen other actions which environmentalists
say favor industry over health.
in her home state of New Jersey ran front page stories this month
saying Whitman had told Bush she wanted to leave the agency.
Martyak said his boss is staying on the job.
was poised to act
October, the EPA complied with a Freedom of Information Act request
and gave the Post-Dispatch access to thousands of documents —
in nine large file boxes. There were hundreds of e-mails, scores
of "action memos" describing the declaration and piles
of "communication strategies" for how the announcement
would be made.
documents illustrated the internal and external battle over getting
the declaration and announcement released.
of the most contentious concerns was the anticipated national backlash
from the Libby declaration. EPA officials knew that if the agency
announced that the insulation in Montana was so dangerous that an
emergency had to be declared, people elsewhere whose homes contained
the same contaminated Zonolite would want answers or perhaps demand
to have their homes cleaned.
language of the declaration was molded to stress how unique Libby
was and to play down the national problem.
many in the agency's headquarters and regional offices didn't buy
a Feb. 22 memo, the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics
said "the national ramifications are enormous" and estimated
that if only 1 million homes have Zonolite "(are) we not put
in a position to remove their (insulation) at a national cost of
over $10 billion?"
memo also questioned the agency's claim that the age of Libby's
homes and severe winter conditions in Montana required a higher
level of maintenance, which in turn meant increased disturbance
of the insulation in the homes there.
"a shallow argument," the memo said. "There are older
homes which exist in harsh or harsher conditions across the country.
Residents in Maine and Michigan might find this argument flawed."
one knows precisely how many dwellings are insulated with Zonolite.
Memos from the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry repeatedly cite an estimate of between 15 million and 35
government analysis of shipping records from W.R. Grace show that
at least 15.6 billion pounds of vermiculite ore was shipped from
Libby to 750 plants and factories throughout North America.
a third and half of that ore was popped into insulation and usually
sold in 3-foot-high kraft paper bags.
extrapolations and interviews with former W.R. Grace Zonolite salesmen
indicate that Illinois may have as many as 800,000 homes with Zonolite,
Michigan as many as 700,000. Missouri is likely to have Zonolite
in 380,000 homes.
four processing plants in St. Louis, it is estimated that more than
60,000 homes, offices and schools were insulated with Zonolite in
the St. Louis area alone.
the internal documents show, acceptance grew that the agency should
declare a public health emergency.
a confidential memo dated March 28, an EPA official said the declaration
was tentatively set for April 5.
But the declaration never came.
Superfund boss Horinko on May 9 quietly ordered that asbestos be
removed from contaminated homes in Libby. There was no national
warning of potential dangers from Zonolite. And there was no promise
of long-term medical care for Libby's ill and dying. The presence
of the White House budget office is noted throughout the documents.
The press announcement of the watered-down decision was rewritten
five times the day before it was released to accommodate budget
office wording changes that played down the dangers.
asbestos in Zonolite, like all asbestos products, is believed to
be either a minimal risk or no risk if it is not disturbed. The
asbestos fibers must be airborne to be inhaled. The fibers then
become trapped in the lungs, where they may cause asbestosis, lung
cancer and mesothelioma, a fast-moving cancer of the lung's lining.
EPA's files are filled with studies documenting the toxicity of
tremolite, how even minor disruptions of the material by moving
boxes, sweeping the floor or doing repairs in attics can generate
also has been confirmed by simulations W.R. Grace ran in Weedsport,
N.Y., in July 1977; by 1997 studies by the Canadian Department of
National Defense; and by the U.S. Public Health Service, which reported
in 2000, that "even minimal handling by workers or residents
poses a substantial health risk."
December, a study by Christopher Weis, the EPA's senior toxicologist
supporting the Libby project, reported that "the concentrations
of asbestos fibers that occur in air following disturbance of (insulation)
may reach levels of potential human health concerns."
of those who have studied the needle-sharp tremolite fibers in the
Libby ore consider them far more dangerous than other asbestos fibers.
October, the EPA team leading the cleanup of lower Manhattan after
the attacks of Sept. 11 went to Libby to meet with Peronard and
his crew. The EPA had reversed an early decision and announced that
it would be cleaning asbestos from city apartments.
has been a laboratory for doing just that.
told the visitors from New York just how dangerous tremolite is.
He talked about the hands-on research in Libby of Dr. Alan Whitehouse,
a pulmonologist who had worked for NASA and the Air Force on earlier
projects before moving to Spokane, Wash.
research on the people here gave us our first solid lead of how
bad this tremolite is," Peronard said.
has not only treated 500 people from Libby who are sick and dying
from exposure to tremolite. The chest specialist also has almost
300 patients from Washington shipyards and the Hanford, Wash., nuclear
facility who are suffering health effects from exposure to the more
prevalent chrysotile asbestos.
the two groups, Whitehouse has demonstrated that the tremolite from
Libby is 10 times as carcinogenic as chrysotile and probably 100
times more likely to produce mesothelioma than chrysotile.
Grace has maintained that its insulation is safe. On April 3 of
this year, the company wrote a letter to Whitman again insisting
its product was safe and that no public health declaration or nationwide
warning was warranted.
Brad Black, who runs the asbestos clinic in Libby and acts as health
officer for Montana's Lincoln County, says "people have a right
to be warned of the potential danger they may face if they disturb
chief EPA spokesman, argues that the agency has informed the public
of the potential dangers. "It's on our Web site," he said.
Patty Murray, D-Wash., is sponsoring legislation to ban asbestos
in the United States. She said the Web site warning is a joke.
answer that people have been warned because it's on their Web site
is ridiculous," she said. "If you have a computer, and
you just happened to think about what's in your attic, and you happen
to be on EPA's Web page, then you get to know. This is not the way
the safety of the public is handled.
the government, the EPA, the administration have a responsibility
to at least let people know the information so they can protect
themselves if they go into those attics," she said.
you should know about asbestos dangers
insulation has been produced and sold for home and business use
for more than half a century. The featherweight, silverish-brown
pieces of popcornlike vermiculite are usually the size of a nickel
or dime, but some firms have sold pea-size vermiculite.
what government experts say you should do:
you're a homeowner: Stay away from Zonolite insulation, and leave
is dangerous only when the material is disturbed and the fibers
become airborne and can be drawn into the lungs.
you must work in the attic: "If you're a do-it-yourselfer or
someone who's in attics every day — like electricians, telephone
people, cable installers, the heating and cooling people —
get and wear the proper respirator and change your clothes before
you go home," says Paul Peronard of the Environmental Protection
you don't know whether you have Zonolite but think you might: Do
not let children play in the area. Do not sweep the Zonolite or
use a normal vacuum cleaner. This will just recirculate the dangerous
fibers, which could linger in the air for days. There are vacuum
cleaners on the market that come with highly sensitive HEPA filters
that will capture the fibers.
you want to find out about the material in your attic: There are
asbestos testing laboratories in or near most communities.
If you want Zonolite removed: For do-it-yourselfers, the EPA and
many state and local health departments can tell you the safest
way to get rid of the insulation.
cleanup help is available, but hiring a professional asbestos remover
can be costly. To avoid potential conflicts of interest, have the
insulation tested by one firm and removed by another. State and
local agencies have the names and numbers of people trained, equipped
and licensed to do this work.
check out the credentials of those you hire. An untrained or sloppy
crew can spread asbestos throughout your house or office.
EPA — National Asbestos Hot Line: 1-800-368-5888
U.S. EPA Region 7 (Missouri): 1-800-223-0425
U.S. EPA Region 5 (Illinois): 1-800-621-8431
EPA Web site: www.epa.gov (search for vermiculite)
Missouri — Office of Environmental Health and Air Pollution
St. Louis County Health Department, Air Pollution Control: 314-615-8923
St. Louis, Division of Air Pollution Control: 314-613-7300
Illinois: The health departments in Madison, St. Clair, Monroe and
Clinton counties say they refer all calls involving asbestos to
the Illinois Department of Public Health: 1-217-782-5830