Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell set a dangerous precedent this week by signing into law a bill that will allow naturally occurring asbestos to be extracted and used in construction projects around the state.
The bill, which may be putting development and profits before public health, also protects construction companies that use the asbestos gravel from any future legal responsibility in utilizing the toxic material.
Asbestos is a well-known carcinogen that can lead to a variety of respiratory issues, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer.
Although for years Alaska had the lowest rate of asbestos-related deaths in the country, that could be changing in the future.
Democrat Reggie Joule of Kotzebue, who sponsored the original HB 258, said the law was needed to restart construction that was halted in the Upper Kobuk area once the state began enforcing federal workplace standards in 2003.
Expansion of a much-needed sewage project, roads and improvement to an airport runway, would not be completed without the new law because it was cost-prohibitive to use anything but the asbestos-laden gravel that was mined in the area.
The bill does have a provision that requires gravel with a concentration of asbestos beyond a quarter of one percent to come with a site-specific handling and safety plan from a project manager.
Health experts around the world, though, have agreed there is no amount of asbestos that is considered safe to humans. The bill would give legal immunity to communities, landowners and owners of the contaminated gravel if any health problems arose.
People who may get sick from the asbestos would be unable to seek damages from those responsible.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French (D-Anchorage) was one of the few who voted against the bill. His committee had challenged the legal immunity issue and written in limits to that immunity. Those limits, though, were removed before the bill was passed.
“I don’t believe in blanket immunity because people get very, very, sick from asbestos,” he said. “And there’s no safe threshold of asbestos.”
The state of Alaska has several areas with naturally occurring asbestos. The bill will allow the asbestos-laden gravel to be used for Department of Transportation and public facilities.
According to Alaskapublic.org, this year’s capitol improvement budget in the Upper Kobuk area includes school renovation and roads in the Ambler Mining district.
The debate on the Senate floor centered around a compromise between the needs of the community and the health of the citizens. Gara spoke of his concern when the asbestos gravel is used where children will be playing or when an added protective material begins to wear off.
He also pressed for an amendment that would have required a public hearing for people who might be affected by a project that included asbestos gravel. That, too, was rejected by Gara’s peers.