Chlor-alkali producers claim that asbestos use poses no undue risks for their workers and that a proposed ban represents burdensome governmental overreach. But recent reports provide evidence of a very different story.
On April 11, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a total ban on asbestos in the production of chlorine, which allows a twoyear phase-out period. Chlor-alkali manufacturers and others say this abrupt mandate will cripple the country’s access to untold numbers of chlorine-dependent products and safe drinking water.
According to Scott McDougald Sutton, President, CEO, and Chairman for Olin Corporation, one of the big three chlor-alkali manufacturing companies operating in the U.S., between 30 to 40 percent of this country’s chlorine production is based on asbestos diaphragms.
“If that rule came out like that, there'd be no choice but to shut down immense amounts of capacity,” Sutton told shareholders on a July 29 earnings call.
In response to the EPA’s 33-page Risk Assessment and proposed rule, 156 comments were posted, most objecting to the mandate.
The Amer ican Chemi s try Council recommended that the EPA reconsider the factors to either allow for the ongoing chlor-alkali asbestos diaphragm use or provide at least 15 years to phase out chrysotile asbestos to avoid a disruptive 2-year phase-out that will adversely impact public health, increase the costs of goods and services, and create critical supply shortages.
Dow was also among those companies that commented on the EPA Risk Assessment.
“It is impossible to replace all diaphragms in a chlor-alkali facility in a short 2-year timeframe, such as EPA is proposing. Faster replacements will jeopardize operations,” Dow stated in their comment.
Furthermore, according to Dow, “Asbestos diaphragms are fully enclosed, therefore there is no exposure, and as such, no risk for humans and the environment.”
However, this October, new information was brought to light concerning the actual working conditions within chlor-alkali facilities.
Investigative journalists with National Public Radio and ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom, produced a damning article that details the realities of worker exposure to asbestos within OxyChem, a chloralkali chemical company that shuttered its Niagara Falls, New York, facility in late 2021 for unrelated reasons.
According to more than a dozen former workers of the facility, which is owned by one of the country’s largest energy companies, Occidental Petroleum, the company seemed to treat asbestos containment with the lighthearted frivolity of an exploding pillow fight.
The article, entitled, “The U.S. Never Banned Asbestos. These Workers are Paying the Price,” paints a picture of truly appalling, dangerous, and unacceptable working conditions at OxyChem, and reports that various government agencies did nothing to stop it.
“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,” the article states.
Workers said that they implored the plant’s managers to address the conditions, but the dangers remained until the plant closed.
The workers described how the chlorine is made: A tank of salt water, subjected to electricity, can be converted into chlorine, caustic soda, and hydrogen. The chlorine is sold for disinfecting water, the caustic soda for making paper, soap and pharmaceuticals. But the chemicals must be kept separate from one another or the tank could explode. So each tank has a thick, metal screen inside, coated with asbestos, to keep the chemicals apart.
“At OxyChem, there were about 200 tanks, called cells, each the size of a dining room table and containing a metal screen. When a screen needed to be recoated, a special team of workers removed it and brought it to the cavernous cell-maintenance building. There, they blasted it with a high-pressure water cannon until the old asbestos fell off. Then, they dipped the clean screen into a wet mixture containing new asbestos and cooked it in an oven until the asbestos hardened. They worked on one or two screens each day.”
Workers said that water-blasting the screens was messy, with asbestos splattering everywhere. This wasn’t a problem when it was wet, but when it dried the next day, the asbestos would roll across the floor, catching the light in the air when the sun came through the window.
One worker, Robert Cheff, who worked at the plant from 1981 until 2007, said “We were constantly swimming in this stuff.”
A dozen workers interviewed for the article said that while managers were supposed to enforce wearing personal protective equipment, many simply looked the other way, allowing unprotected workers into asbestos saturated buildings, despite company requirements. Suiting up was impractical, taking time away from other tasks that needed to be done, and the suits were uncomfortable on hot days, when the inside temperature could get to 100 degrees.
In the summer, windows and doors were left open, allowing the asbestos to escape outside. A worker described climbing on top of a building to fix a fan and observing the roof and nearby trains covered in asbestos. He wondered if the fibers had travelled to the homes less than a half mile away.
Henry Saenz, who worked at OxyChem for nearly three decades, remembers walking into safety meetings in the administrative building with asbestos drying on his coveralls. Workers said it would dry and flake off their clothes wherever they went.
Lest any suppose that OxyChem’s working conditions were unique, Chris Murphy, a former union president at Olin’s plant in Alabama, said that conditions were much the same there. He’d also seen asbestos caked on beams and cranes, and had been asked to scrape it off with a putty knife. He hadn’t been told to wear protective equipment, so he hadn’t.
Meanwhile, The Occupational Safety and Health Administration let OxyChem and Olin into a special program, The Star Program, which reduced the frequency of inspections at many of their plants.
When OSHA inspectors came to the facilities, usually every three to five years, they announced their visits well in advanced, and workers spent months preparing the facility until it was spotless.
According to the article, many of OxyChem’s workers have died of asbestos-related illnesses, which is really no surprise if OxyChem treated asbestos as cavalierly as its workers reported.
In an 88-page comment to the EPA’s Risk Evaluation proposal to ban asbestos from chlor-alkali manufacturing plants, the American Chemistry Council made a few points:
• The EPA mischaracterizes the workers exposure duration as 40 years instead of the true 15-year employment duration.
• The EPA fails to account for the fact that as required by OSHA, workers exposed to asbestos wear HEPA-equipped respirators and other appropriate personal protection equipment at all exposure times.
• An outright prohibition of asbestos diaphragms is not needed to eliminate the minimal and already well-controlled risks posed to the fewer than 100 workers and an EPAestimated 100 occupational nonusers, such as janitors, at the plants.
Unless OxyChem’s former workers were not telling the truth, the ACC’s points don’t seem convincing.
It’s estimated that it could be more than 8 months before the EPA’s proposed rule is finalized, and Sutton, Olin’s CEO, told shareholders that if it is enacted it would cripple the country and turn chlorine into gold.
“That's not going to happen. We've been engaged in this activity for quite a while and have pushed back on it. I think you're not likely to see a final rule come out that is as proposed.”