- By Shaniqua Williams
On May 5, 2012, the House Bill 258 sponsored by Kotzebue Democrat Reggie Joule allowing the use of gravel and other similar products which naturally contain asbestos in private and state-run construction projects went into effect. It had previously passed the Alaska House of Representatives on April 5 with only two opposing votes. The bill had been first introduced on February 2010 under the name of House Bill 333 but failed to be approved by the committee. In addition to permitting the use of asbestos-contaminated gravel in Alaska, it also invests construction companies and land owners with legal immunity, as they will not be held responsible if someone develops mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer as a consequence of exposure.
Until recently, asbestos exposure had not represented a very serious concern for the residents of Alaska. According to the Environmental Working Group, 407 people lost their lives to asbestos-related diseases in the State of Alaska between 1999 and 2013, which is a very small number in comparison to the 21,338 asbestos victims registered in California - the leading state for asbestos deaths - within the same time period. However, this might dramatically change in the future, as an increased use of asbestos-containing products will lead to more and more residents being exposed to this toxic mineral.
Reggie Joule's initiative stemmed from the high demand for gravel. Asbestos occurs naturally in Alaska and it can be found in enormous deposits throughout the state, in locations such as Ketchikan, Brooks Range, Juneau, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Kobuk Valley. Thereby, due to limited access to uncontaminated gravel, major ongoing construction projects had to be postponed and had been on hold for years, as they could not be brought to completion. The bill "creates a voluntary program that allows certain areas to use naturally occurring asbestos gravel for construction projects", Joule said.
Nevertheless, this decision might have serious health consequences not only for Alaska residents but also for the construction workers who handle asbestos-containing gravel. Occupational exposure is considerably more harmful than other types of asbestos exposure, as it generally involves tremendous amounts of asbestos which could easily be inhaled by employees. Up to 10% of workers who are in regular contact with asbestos on the job will be diagnosed with mesothelioma, while many others are at high risk of developing asbestosis or lung cancer.
The House Bill 258 also includes a provision referring to the concentration of asbestos in gravel and other related building materials. Thus, in accordance with the bill, products which contain 24% or less asbestos are safe for human health. However, construction companies are allowed to employ materials which contain a higher percentage of asbestos as well, as long as safety measures are enforced. "Asbestos is naturally-occurring in the Upper Kobuk region, so they've been basically shut down for any capital projects because of it - so what we're saying is if the percentage is 24, then it's gravel aggregate", said Joule.
Despite the well-known dangers of exposure, the regulation of naturally occurring asbestos has been gaining more and more popularity lately. Virginia and California are two other U.S. states which allow the use of naturally occurring asbestos for certain purposes, while several others are currently pondering on the matter.
While Reggie Joule's bill might have terrible implications for public health, it also prevents future victims of exposure from exerting their legal right to request compensation for their illness. Company executives, as well as land owners who use asbestos-laden gravel, are fully protected from the consequences of a potential legal recourse taken by asbestos victims, as those injured will not be able to file lawsuits or, in the case of employees, asbestos claims in order to recover compensation.
Among the very few state representatives who voted against the decision is Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French. He and his committee addressed the aspect of legal immunity and proposed limits in this respect. Nonetheless, the limits were not taken into consideration and the bill was passed as it initially was. "I don't believe in blanket immunity because people get very, very, sick from asbestos. And there's no safe threshold of asbestos", the Senate Judiciary Chairman said.
Anchorage Democrat Les Gara opposed the House Bill 258 as well. "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", he said. Les Gara also strived to emphasize the necessity of public meetings prior to the approval of asbestos-containing products, but to no avail. "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", the Anchorage Democrat added.
The decision to allow the use of naturally occurring asbestos is without a doubt a controversial one. While the employment of asbestos-laden products will be regulated, exposure is unavoidable and may lead to a considerable number of Alaska residents being diagnosed with devastating diseases such as mesothelioma or lung cancer within the following decades. To aggravate the situation, future asbestos victims will not even have the legal right to recover financial compensation unless the bill undergoes some changes in the meantime.
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