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Career EPA Staff Objected to Trump Administration's Asbestos Plan

Politics
U.S. Air Force / Anthony Jennings

Attorneys and scientists with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) objected to the Trump administration's proposal of a "significant new use rule" (SNUR) for asbestos, according to internal agency emails obtained by the The New York Times.

Trump's former EPA boss Scott Pruitt quietly announced the proposal in June, framing the plan as an "important, unprecedented action on asbestos," a toxic construction material and known carcinogen that kills almost 15,000 U.S. citizens annually.


Asbestos is not banned in the U.S. but there are strict regulations on its use. But as Fast Company noted, the way the proposed rule is written could allow manufacturers to create new products containing asbestos on a case-by-case basis.

In one of the emails obtained by the Times, veteran EPA attorney Mark Seltzer raised red flags about the Trump administration's proposal.

"This new approach allows asbestos-containing products that are not currently used to be used in the future," Seltzer wrote in the May 2 email.

"Many manufacturers have stopped using asbestos in their products but would be allowed to through this SNUR if it is not one of the approximately 15 types that the SNUR requires a [notification] for," he said.

In another email from Sharon Cooperstein of the EPA's policy office, she "echoed" her colleagues' objections, adding that "the new approach raises significant concerns about the potential public health impacts of the SNUR."

EPA spokesman James Hewitt told the Times that the emails showed some staffers "did not fully understand the proposal being developed."

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) spoke against the EPA's proposed rule in a Thursday letter to acting EPA administrator Andrew R. Wheeler. The AIA said the proposal would "create a pathway to consider new uses of asbestos" and called on the EPA to entirely ban its use.

"The EPA should use their existing regulatory authority to establish a blanket ban on the use of asbestos," they wrote.

Wheeler blasted media reports that the Trump administration is trying to bring back asbestos. He tweeted that his agency "is proposing a new rule that would allow for the restriction of asbestos manufacturing and processing of new uses of asbestos."

The proposal is open for public comment until Aug. 10.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.