The Alaska House of Representatives passed a bill last week that allows for the use of naturally occurring asbestos (NOA) throughout the state in instances where it becomes too expensive to utilize replacement materials.
The bill, effectively known as HB 258, was sponsored by Kotzebue Democrat Reggie Joule. It passed on April 5 with only two opposing votes. Despite the consensus within the House, some worry that the larger health concerns are being overlooked.
No scientific evidence suggests that safe levels of asbestos exposure are attainable.
Asbestos exposure is linked to the development of numerous respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis and pleural plaques.
The manner in which the fibers damage the human organs may result in the disease taking as long as 50 years to manifest.
Alaska’s Asbestos Bill
Alaska contains multiple geographical areas with NOA, including in Juneau, along the Dalton Highway and Ambler. The new bill will allow this asbestos to be used for gravel and similar purposes.
The language in the bill demonstrates its purposes specifically for Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
“We tried to craft a balance that meets the needs of a community, with the health of a community. That health concern has to be at the forefront,” Joule said.
“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 its gravel aggregate.”
Joule’s stance is defended by the fact that Alaska ranks 50th in the United States for mesothelioma and asbestos-related deaths.
Furthermore, the bill does provide some limitations to the use of NOA and requires contractors and agencies to report certain data relating to asbestos use to the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
The bill may have also received a majority consensus because the foundation of the law resembles that of similar bills in other states.
Virginia and California have been regulating the use of naturally occurring asbestos for many years.
Consequences of the Bill
However, some argue that any bill allowing for the increased use of a toxic material will likely come with some consequences.
Anchorage Democrat Les Gara has raised multiple concerns with Joule’s bill, citing its effect on residents’ legal options if they become sick from asbestos exposure.
“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. So 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,” Gara said.
The Anchorage representative raises a point that may concern some valid residents. However, because of the extensive latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases, this is a concern of residents that may not become relevant for decades to come.
The Senate has not yet heard its version of the bill and must approve it for it to become law.