EPA Will Propose to Ban Ongoing Uses of Asbestos
The U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) announced on April 5, 2022, that it will propose to prohibit ongoing uses of chrysotile asbestos, the only known form of asbestos currently imported into the United States. EPA notes that the proposed rule will be “the first-ever risk management rule issued under the new process for evaluating and addressing the safety of existing chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) that was enacted in 2016.” EPA will propose to prohibit manufacture (including import), processing, distribution in commerce, and commercial use of chrysotile asbestos for all ongoing uses of chrysotile asbestos. EPA will also propose targeted disposal and recordkeeping requirements in line with industry standards, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements, and the Asbestos National Emission Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP). EPA has posted a pre-publication version of the proposed rule. Publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register will begin a 60-day comment period.
As reported in our January 4, 2021, memorandum, EPA released on December 30, 2020, the final risk evaluation for asbestos, part 1: chrysotile asbestos (Asbestos RE Part 1). Of the six use categories evaluated (chlor-alkali diaphragms, sheet gaskets, other gaskets, oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes/linings, and other vehicle friction products), EPA found that there is unreasonable risk to workers, occupational non-users (ONU), consumers, and/or bystanders within each of the six chrysotile asbestos use categories. EPA found no unreasonable risk to the environment. According to the final risk evaluation, chrysotile is the prevailing form of asbestos currently mined worldwide, and “so it is assumed that a majority of commercially available products fabricated overseas that contain asbestos are made with chrysotile. Any asbestos being imported into the U.S. in articles is believed to be chrysotile.” The other five forms of asbestos are now subject to a significant new use rule (SNUR), as reported in our April 18, 2019, memorandum, “EPA Announces Final SNUR for Asbestos Will ‘Close Loophole and Protect Consumers.’”
EPA will propose a rule under TSCA Section 6(a) to prohibit manufacture (including import), processing, distribution in commerce, and commercial use of chrysotile asbestos in bulk or as part of chrysotile asbestos diaphragms used in the chlor-alkali industry and chrysotile asbestos-containing sheet gaskets used in chemical production. EPA will propose that these prohibitions take effect two years after the effective date of the final rule.
EPA will also propose pursuant to TSCA Section 6(a) to prohibit manufacture (including import), processing, distribution in commerce, and commercial use of chrysotile asbestos-containing brake blocks used in the oil industry, aftermarket automotive chrysotile asbestos-containing brakes/linings, other chrysotile asbestos-containing vehicle friction products (not including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Super Guppy Turbine aircraft use), and other chrysotile asbestos-containing gaskets. EPA will propose that these prohibitions take effect 180 days after the effective date of the final rule.
EPA will further propose pursuant to TSCA Section 6(a) to prohibit manufacture (including import), processing, and distribution in commerce of: aftermarket automotive chrysotile asbestos-containing brakes/linings for consumer use, and commercial use of other chrysotile asbestos-containing gaskets for consumer use. EPA will propose that these prohibitions take effect 180 days after the effective date of the final rule.
EPA will also propose disposal and recordkeeping requirements under which regulated parties would document compliance with certain proposed prohibitions. EPA states that it does not intend the proposed prohibitions on processing or distribution in commerce to prohibit any processing or distribution in commerce incidental to disposal of the chrysotile asbestos waste in accordance with the proposed requirements.
According to EPA, because a determination has been made that chrysotile asbestos presents an unreasonable risk to health within the United States or to the environment of the United States, pursuant to TSCA Section 12(a)(2), the proposed rule would apply to chrysotile asbestos even if being manufactured, processed, or distributed in commerce solely for export from the United States.
Bergeson & Campbell, P.C. (B&C®) commends EPA on this historical achievement. Unsurprisingly, there are aspects of this precedent-setting proposed rule that invite discussion and warrant comment from affected parties. Key among these issues is a potential significant legal vulnerability in the underlying risk evaluation (i.e., Asbestos RE Part 1) for the proposed rule, an issue that may overshadow this historic achievement in a manner reminiscent of EPA’s failed ban of asbestos in 1991 (Corrosion Proof Fittings v. EPA, 947 F.2d 1201 (5th Cir., 1991)).
EPA proposed that the prohibition on specific conditions of use (e.g., chrysotile asbestos diaphragms used in the chlor-alkali industry) would take effect two years after the effective date of the final rule. EPA stated that it “believes an aggressive transition away from chrysotile asbestos will spur adoption of superior technology [e.g., membrane cells with increased concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)].” The clear need to consider EPA’s intended action on asbestos in the context of its ongoing actions on PFAS is of course not lost on the Agency. EPA acknowledged that “the transition away from asbestos-containing diaphragms could result in greater usage and release of PFAS.”
B&C notes that innovative new technologies, such as alternative membrane cells, may be available in the future, but those technologies must be proven to be economically and technically viable. Once proven effective, the underlying chemical substances must be reviewed as new chemicals if so classified under TSCA. The development, review, and approval are all on indeterminate timelines, so it is speculative when novel, non-PFAS-based technologies will be commercially available and, of course, whether that time will be prior to the effective date of EPA’s proposed ban on asbestos.
EPA requested comment on specific aspects of the proposed rule that B&C encourages potentially impacted parties to consider. For example, EPA discussed its authority under TSCA Section 6(g) to grant a time-limited exemption for a specific condition of use, such as the chlor-alkali industry, where EPA finds “that compliance with the proposed requirement would significantly disrupt the national economy, national security, or critical infrastructure.”
EPA also requested comment on a primary alternative regulatory option that EPA discussed for the chlor-alkali diaphragm and sheet gasket categories that would allow a prohibition to take effect five years after the effective date of the final rule. As part of this option, EPA would include establishment of a risk-based performance standard known as an existing chemical exposure limit (ECEL). EPA developed an eight-hour time-weighted average (8-hr TWA) ECEL of 0.005 fibers/cubic centimeter (f/cc) for inhalation exposures to chrysotile asbestos as an eight-hr TWA ECEL-action level of 0.0025 f/cc, with associated requirements for initial and periodic monitoring and respirator usage/type if exceedances are found.
As part of the monitoring requirements, EPA stated that it would “require use of appropriate sampling and analytical methods to determine asbestos exposure, including: … Compliance with the Good Laboratory Practice Standards at 40 CFR Part 792,” despite the fact that EPA acknowledges that other standards, such as Industrial Hygiene Laboratory Accreditation Program (IHLAP), are more appropriate for industrial hygiene monitoring. EPA’s TSCA Section 5(e) order template states the following under Section III.D:
Compliance with TSCA GLPS, however, is not required under this New Chemical Exposure Limit Section where the analytical method is verified by a laboratory accredited by either: the American Industrial Hygiene Association (“AIHA”) Industrial Hygiene Laboratory Accreditation Program (“IHLAP”) or another comparable program approved in advance in writing by EPA.
EPA devoted one paragraph in the proposed rule to “TSCA section 26(h) considerations.” EPA stated, in part, that its unreasonable risk determination “was based on a risk evaluation, which was subject to peer review and public comment, was developed in a manner consistent with the best available science and based on the weight of the scientific evidence as required by TSCA sections 26(h) [and 26(i)] and 40 CFR 702.43 and 702.45.”
B&C notes that EPA stated in the Asbestos RE Part 1 the following:
TSCA § 26(h) and (i) require EPA, when conducting Risk Evaluations, to use scientific information, technical procedures, measures, methods, protocols, methodologies and models consistent with the best available science and base its decisions on the weight of the scientific evidence. To meet these TSCA § 26 science standards, EPA used the TSCA systematic review process described in the  Application of Systematic Review in TSCA Risk Evaluations document [citation omitted] [2018 SR Document].
Prior to completing Asbestos RE Part 1, EPA requested the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to review the 2018 SR Document. In February 2021, NASEM released its consensus study report on EPA’s 2018 SR Document and concluded that it did not meet the criteria of “comprehensive, workable, objective, and transparent” and that “The OPPT approach to systematic review does not adequately meet the state-of-practice.”
NASEM recommended that “With regard to hazard assessment for human and ecological receptors, OPPT should step back from the approach that it has taken and consider components of the OHAT, IRIS, and Navigation Guide methods that could be incorporated directly and specifically into hazard assessment.”
In response to the NASEM review, EPA revised its systematic review method. On December 20, 2021, EPA released the “Draft Systematic Review Protocol Supporting TSCA Risk Evaluations for Chemical Substances” (2021 Draft Protocol) for public comment. EPA acknowledged in the 2021 Draft Protocol that:
Previously [in the 2018 SR Document], EPA did not have a complete clear and documented TSCA systematic review (SR) Protocol. EPA is addressing this lack of a priori protocol by releasing [the 2021 Draft Protocol].
EPA further stated that the:
[2021 Draft Protocol] is significantly different [from the 2018 SR Document] in that it includes descrition [sic] of the Evidence Integration process…, which was not previously included in the [2018 SR Document].
B&C recognizes that the scientific methods used to inform systematic review are not static and that updates will be required as the science evolves. In this instance, however, many of the documents cited as supporting information for updating the 2021 Draft Protocol (e.g., Office of Health Assessment and Translation (OHAT), 2015) were available prior to EPA issuing the 2018 SR Document. Rather than utilizing these documents at the time, EPA developed the 2018 SR Document de novo. In other words, EPA chose to develop its own methodology in 2018 rather than incorporating and adapting existing methodologies that represented the best available science at the time.
These issues raise interesting procedural questions and issues around whether EPA demonstrated that Asbestos RE Part 1 was based on the best available science and weight of scientific evidence, as required under TSCA Sections 26(h) and 26(i) and the implementing regulation under 40 C.F.R. Part 702.
B&C encourages stakeholders to review EPA’s proposed risk management rule on chrysotile asbestos, even for entities that do not manufacture, process, distribute, or use this substance. We urge this review because of the precedential nature of EPA’s decisions. B&C also encourages interested parties to provide public comments on the proposed rule, given that risk management decisions in the proposed rule will likely serve as a basis from which EPA regulates other chemical substances EPA is evaluating under TSCA Section 6.