This story was originally published by ProPublica.
Henry Saenz remembers when he first learned what even the tiniest bit of asbestos could do to his body. He was working at a chemical plant where employees used the mineral to make chlorine, and his coworkers warned him about what could happen each time he took a breath: Tiny fibers, invisible to the eye, could enter his nose and mouth and settle into his lungs, his abdomen, the lining of his heart. They could linger there for decades. Then, one day, he might develop asbestosis, a chronic disease that makes the lungs harden, or mesothelioma, a vicious cancer that ends the lives of most who have it within a few years.
By then, in the early 1990s, the dangers of asbestos were already irrefutable. The United States had prohibited its use in pipe insulation and branded it so risky that remediators had to wear hazmat suits to remove it. But unlike dozens of other countries that banned the potent carcinogen outright, the United States never did. To this day, the U.S. allows hundreds of tons of asbestos to flow in each year from Brazil, primarily for the benefit of two major chemical companies, OxyChem and Olin Corp. The companies say asbestos is integral to chlorine production at several aging plants and have made a compelling argument to keep it legal: Unlike in the horrific tales of the past, their current protocols for handling asbestos are so stringent that workers face little threat of exposure.
But at OxyChem’s plant in Niagara Falls, New York, where Saenz worked for nearly three decades, the reality was far different, more than a dozen former workers told ProPublica. There, they said, asbestos dust hung in the air, collected on the beams and light fixtures and built up until it was inches thick.
Workers tramped in and out of it all day, often without protective suits or masks, and carried it around on their coveralls and boots. They implored the plant’s managers to address the conditions, they said, but the dangers remained until the plant closed in late 2021 for unrelated reasons.
It was hard for Saenz to reconcile the science that he understood — and that he believed OxyChem and government leaders understood — with what he saw at the plant every day. He did his best not to inhale the asbestos, but after a short time, he came to believe there was no way the killer substance was not already inside him, waiting, perhaps 30 or 40 or even 50 years, to strike.
Now, too late for Saenz, the Environmental Protection Agency appears poised to finally outlaw asbestos in a test case with huge implications. If the agency fails to ban a substance so widely established as harmful, scientists and public health experts argue, it would raise serious doubts about the EPA’s ability to protect the public from any toxic chemicals.
To fight the proposed ban, the chemical companies have returned to a well-worn strategy and marshaled political heavyweights, including the attorneys general of 12 Republican-led states who say it would place a “heavy and unreasonable burden” on industry.
Lost in the battle is the story of what happened in the decades during which the U.S. failed to act. It’s not just a tale of workers in hardscrabble company towns who were sacrificed to the bottom line of industry, but one of federal agencies cowed again and again by the well-financed lawyers and lobbyists of the companies they are supposed to oversee.
It’s the quintessential story of American chemical regulation.
For decades, the EPA and Congress accepted the chlorine companies’ argument that asbestos workers were safe enough, and regulators left the carcinogen on the list of dangerous chemicals that other countries ban but the U.S. still allows. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration even let OxyChem and Olin into a special program that limited the frequency of inspections at many of their plants. Along the way, the two companies proved that they didn’t need asbestos to make chlorine: They built some modern facilities elsewhere that didn’t use it. But they balked at the cost
of upgrading the older facilities where it was still in use — even as they earned billions of dollars from chemical sales and raked in record profits this year…