Midnight Watch: Safety & Toxics

Risk Evaluation for Asbestos

In April 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft risk evaluation for asbestos, finding that certain conditions of asbestos use — including the import of asbestos and asbestos-containing products — present no unreasonable risk to human health and the environment. As noted by state attorneys general in comments filed in June 2020, the EPA failed to consider all uses of asbestos in its evaluation, excluded exposure to legacy asbestos from consideration, and even conceded that the use of commercial and consumer asbestos does in fact present an unreasonable cancer risk.

🔴NEW DEVELOPMENT: The EPA published a final risk evaluation for chrysotile asbestos on December 18.

Risk Evaluation for Perchloroethylene

In May 2020, the EPA released a draft risk evaluation for perchloroethylene (PERC), a hazardous chemical commonly used in dry cleaning. The draft risk evaluation includes numerous deficiencies and underestimations of the risk that PERC poses to human health and the environment. It is particularly egregious from an environmental justice perspective, due to disproportionately high exposure rates to PERC among residents of low-income communities and communities of color, as highlighted in comments filed by state attorneys general in July 2020.

🔴NEW DEVELOPMENT: The EPA published the final risk evaluation on December 18.

Pesticide Reregistration Decision for Flonicamid

In September 2020, the EPA proposed an interim reregistration decision for the pesticide flonicamid. In comments filed in November 2020, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra highlighted the inadequacy of the proposed interim decision, emphasizing that the EPA will violate the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) if it moves forward without reviewing relevant studies and sufficiently analyzing the threat that flonicamid poses to pollinators. The EPA could finalize the interim reregistration decision during the transition period.

Risk Assessment for Ethylene Oxide

On November 20, the EPA released a draft risk assessment for ethylene oxide (EtO), a carcinogenic gas used as a fumigant to sterilize medical equipment and spices. Notably, instead of endorsing a definitive method for evaluating the cancer risks of EtO exposure, the draft risk assessment provides a range of methods, some of which suggest EtO’s carcinogenic potential is far lower than estimated by the EPA’s independent Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program. The EPA will accept comments on the draft risk assessment through January 19, 2021.

Superfund Financial Assurance Requirements

On December 2, the EPA issued final rules limiting the financial responsibility of three industries under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (the Superfund statute). Under Superfund, if the owners and operators of a site contaminated with hazardous substances are unable to fund cleanup efforts, the EPA will use taxpayer funds to clean up the sites. The pace of EPA-funded cleanups is often constrained by fund availability.

Under the EPA's final rules, owners and operators in the three industries — fossil fuel-fired power plants, the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry, and the chemical manufacturing industry — will not be required to establish and maintain evidence of financial responsibility to fund the cleanup of hazardous substances. Consequently, owners and operators in the three industries could declare bankruptcy to avoid Superfund liability, leaving taxpayers on the hook to pay for EPA’s cleanup of the contaminated sites, and leaving nearby communities waiting on the EPA to complete its cleanup activities.