Governor Parnell last week signed a bill setting standards that allow naturally occurring asbestos to be extracted and used in construction projects around the state. It also protects owners of contaminated gravel, construction companies, landowners, workers and communities from any legal responsibility if health hazards develop.
The bill’s sponsor, Kotzebue Democrat Reggie Joule, says the need for the exemption came from the Upper Kobuk area – Ambler in particular — where there has been no construction, no roads – not even an expansion of the sewage lagoon — since the state began enforcing federal workplace safety standards in 2003. Joule says the area has a very high concentration of asbestos that becomes airborne when its disturbed.
The community recognized that they were in a Catch-22 where they would never get their water a sewer issues, they would never get their runway improved, they wouldn’t build new homes unless we had a way to recognize and regulate what we were dealing with. And this allows that to occur.
The new law considers any gravel containing – by volume – point 24 percent or less than a quarter of one percent of asbestos to be safe. To use material containing more than that level, the project manager must develop a site-specific safety and handling plan.
Beyond those requirements, the legal immunity goes into place, with no recourse for those who might get cancer or pulmonary diseases caused by asbestos poisoning such as mesothelioma. Senate Judiciary Chair Hollis French (D-Anchorage) says that a plan is not enough when gravel and asbestos are underfoot where children are playing or when an added protective material begins to wear off. His committee had written a limit to the legal immunity issue, but that was removed before it was passed. He voted against the bill
I don’t believe in blanket immunity because people get very very sick from asbestos. And there’s no safe threshold of asbestos.
In debate on the Senate floor on the final day of this year’s regular session, Golovin Democrat Donny Olson – a physician – said Joule’s bill was a compromise between the needs of the community and the health of the citizens. He pointed to the different types of asbestos that occur.
The asbestos that causes mesothelioma comes from the processed asbestos that is out there. I agree that mesothelioma is a terrible disease to have. It results in many negative aspects, some of which are somewhat fatal. And I’m just as opposed to having mesothelioma as anybody.
The bill took effect immediately when the governor signed it last week. This year’s capital projects budget includes $3-million for school renovation of the Kobuk school and $4-million for work to be done on the Ambler Mining district road.