House Accepts Naturally Occurring Asbestos

The House today agreed that mining of asbestos can be allowed in some places where it’s too expensive to get a replacement for the materials containing it.

The bill addresses a problem for communities where asbestos occurs naturally – but its presence has stopped construction on roads and other public projects that need local gravel.  The bill sets up a process for determining whether asbestos is safe enough.  The bill’s sponsor, Kotzebue Democrat Reggie Joule,  says  Ambler has been particularly stymied by existing restrictions.

This creates a voluntary program that allows certain areas to use naturally occurring asbestos gravel for construction projects.  It provides immunity to landowners,  people involved in the construction process and for the state of Alaska as it relates to injuries,  deaths or sicknesses.   And what this really does at the end of the day is give hope to some of those projects that have been waiting for almost ten years.

Anchorage Democrat Les Gara unsuccessfully pressed for an amendment that would at least hold public meetings to hear from  the people who might be affected by the presence of asbestos that the project was coming.   He argued that there is no scientifically proven safe level of asbestos that might be picked up by the wind when it is processed.  And he says the bill takes away any legal claims the public might have later.

If you end up breathing in asbestos and getting asbestosis, you have no recourse.  All liability is taken away.  So you have no compensatory damages if you get the disease.    So a small protection would be for at least the public to come out and listen and speak out before a plan is adopted in their community.

Joule opposed the change saying the results could be reached through the regulatory process.

Oftentimes, public meetings don’t produce the results you want.  And it says that you can have two meetings and D-O-T gets to walk away checking the box that they’ve had those two public meetings – not necessarily with the kind of public input that need to be there.

The bill allows a community to ask the state to declare the presence of naturally occurring asbestos.   The state Department of Transportation can only initiate the rating when there is no community that would be impacted by the declaration – such as land along the Dalton Highway.  The declaration would require the community to address safety and handling issues.

While Ambler has been the focus of the bill,  asbestos occurs in several parts of the state.  Joule’s staff mentions the Brooks Range,  areas around Dillingham,  some places within the Mat-Su and Juneau where a road project was recently delayed for several months while an asbestos-free gravel was found for the job.

The bill passed with only two votes against it. The Senate has not yet heard it.