The story was co- published with NPR News.
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Henry remembers the first time he heard about the dangers of the substance. He was working at a chemical plant where employees used a mineral to make chlorine and his coworkers warned him about what could happen if he breathed in tiny fibers. For a long time, they could linger there. One day, he might be diagnosed with a chronic disease that causes the lungs to stiffen, or a cancer that causes death within a few years, like Mesothelioma.
By the early 1990s, the dangers of the substance were clear. Remediators had to wear hazmat suits to remove pipe insulation that was banned by the US. The United States did not ban the carcinogen completely. For the benefit of two major chemical companies, the U.S. allows hundreds of tons ofAsbestos to flow in each year from Brazil
More than a dozen former workers told ProPublica that the reality was vastly different at the plant where Saenz worked. They said that there was a lot of dust in the air and on the beams and light fixture. Workers wore their coveralls and boots when they went in and out of it. The plant's managers were urged to address the conditions, but the dangers remained until the plant closed in late 2021, they said.
It was difficult for Saenz to reconcile the science he knew with what he saw at the plant. After a short time, he came to the conclusion that the killer substance was already inside him, and that he would have to wait at least 30 or 40 years to die from it.
The Environmental Protection Agency is poised to outlaw the substance in a test case with huge ramifications. The EPA's ability to protect the public from toxic chemicals would be in serious doubt if the agency fails to ban a substance that is widely known to be harmful.
The attorneys general of 12 Republican-led states have joined the fight against the proposed ban, saying it would place a heavy and unreasonable burden on industry.
The story of how the U.S. failed to act is lost in the battle. It's more than just a story of workers in hardscrabble company towns who were sacrificed to the bottom line of industry, but one of federal agencies cowed again and again by the well-financed lawyers and lobbyists of the companies they are supposed to oversee.
It is the epitome of American chemical regulation.
For decades, the EPA and Congress accepted the chlorine companies' argument that it was safe for workers to use chlorine, even though other countries banned it. A special program was put in place by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to limit the number of inspections at some of their plants. Along the way, the two companies proved that they didn't needAsbestos to make chlorine, and built facilities that didn't use it. Even though they earned billions of dollars from chemical sales and made record profits this year, they didn't like the cost ofUpgrading the older facilities.
One of the country's largest energy companies, OxyChem, refused to answer questions. After receiving a summary of the reporting from ProPublica, company officials said the accounts from the plant were not accurate. The company said in a statement that it complies with federal regulations and that workers who handle it are trained, protected by personal protective equipment and offered annual medical exams. Employees are allowed to stop work if they feel unsafe. The health and safety of every plant worker is the company's top priority.
The company didn't respond to calls or emails for a month.
It's easy to minimize the toll of the disease. Workers' compensation cases are often confidential and employees are afraid to speak out. ProPublica reporters were able to explore what it was like to work at a plant that used to be America's longest-standing facility that was closed last year. With their jobs no longer on the line, Saenz and 17 other former workers, some with institutional knowledge dating back to the 1960s and others with memories less than a year old, were free to speak. After agreeing to hours of interviews and digging through their homes, they were able to reconstruct their lives at the plant.
Six experts in industrial hygiene and occupational health were shocked by what they heard.
The chair of the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the University of California, Los Angeles said it was totally unacceptable.
Philip Landrigan is a public health physician who leads Boston College's program for Global Public Health and the Common Good.
Celeste Monforton is a lecturer at Texas State University who studies occupational health and safety practices.
Monforton said it was counter to everything they said about using asbestos safely.
The plant on the river was a small city for more than a century. In its heyday, it had a health clinic, a credit union and a cafeteria. There was a job there. Even without a college degree, workers can make six figures. The plant had a lot of bad things to do. Hooker Chemical turned the property over to the city in the 1950's after burying toxic waste in an unfinished aqueduct. One of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history happened after the people who lived there were poisoned.
Unlike many of the other workers who grew up in the shadows of the plant, Saenz was from Northern California. After falling in love with a woman from Niagara Falls, he moved there to start a family with her, working at a hotel, delivering flowers and tending bar.
After getting a crash course in chemistry, he was hired in 1989. He learned that a small amount of electricity could turn a tank of salt water into something. The caustic soda can be used to make soap and aspirin. The tank could turn into a bomb if the chemicals mix. Each tank had a metal screen that separated the chemicals.
The screen was covered with a material that was hard to remove. The most common type of chrysotile is whiteAsbestos. It showed up on the trains in large bags. The cells were the size of a dining room table and contained a metal screen. A team of workers took the screen away and brought it to the cell-maintenance building. They used a high-pressure water cannon to blast it. They cooked the screen in an oven until it hardened, then dipped it in a wet mixture and put it in a container. Each day they worked on a screen.
One of the most dangerous jobs at the plant required special training. It gave a rare benefit. The only jobs that required workers to take afternoon and night shifts were the asbestos jobs. Saenz waited a long time for an opening on the team so he could spend more time with his family. A spot opened up after he had a child.
A group of men ate lunch together in a trailer. They would meet at a dive bar after their shift ended. It used to be the wing joint down the street or the bar in the basement. The guys referred to Cheetham as Soupie. After his father's death, he dropped out of high school and went to work for a company that makes pesticides. His mom needed help. Cheetham tapped Saenz on the shoulder. He said they were going for a ride. They pulled up in front of the store. The keg had to be carried by the new guy.
The guys helped each other's families through tough times. They had their backs to each other. Fires were difficult to miss. Chlorine leaks were more subtle than others. There was something else. He began to notice how much of it surrounded him as he spent more time on the job.
The federal workplace safety standards require workers to wear protective equipment and keep theAsbestos wet to prevent it from going airborne. Rules were put in place to meet those standards. More than a dozen workers said that protocols didn't match reality.
The screens were blasted with water, like washing a car. There was a substance splattered all over. When it was wet, it wasn't an issue. It would be stuck to the ceiling and the walls after it had dried. There were clumps on the floor. When the sun shone, the particles caught the light. Robert Cheff, who worked at the plant from 1981 to 2007, said that it was impossible to keep all of the Asbestos wet. We were swimming all the time.
Pressure washing and screen dipping are some of the tasks that workers wear protective gear for. They went into the building to carry out other tasks without being protected from the elements. Managers enforced the rules, according to one worker. The bosses looked the other way, according to a dozen other people. They said it was impractical to suit up. On hot days, when the temperature inside could reach 100 degrees, it took time away from the tasks that needed to be completed.
The windows and doors were left open in the summer to keep the workers safe from the heat. They wore wet uniforms, coats, helmets and boots. A man with a mustache had some on his mustache. They said that it would leave a mark on their clothes. The administrative building was where Saenz walked into the safety meetings. The guys ate lunch in the trailer where they took breaks and it needed to be replaced because of the amount of Asbestos carried into it.
The uniforms were caked with dryAsbestos. Mike Spacone, a long time union officer, said that when the union raised the issue in 2010, managers gave the team a hamper with a lid. The company gave the team its own laundry facilities after union leaders threatened to call the authorities.
Workers who handled Asbestos would leave without showering in the plant's locker room or wearing their work clothes. Dave said his kids played sports. Sometimes I had to leave.
Workers with a high risk of exposure sometimes clipped a small monitor to their bodies to measure the amount ofAsbestos in the air around them Patrick Nowak's levels exceeded OSHA's exposure limit at least five times in 2001 and 2002. They stopped testing him because he failed so many times. The records do not indicate if Nowak wore a protective mask.
Tony Garfalo wore a monitor seven times in 2001 and on four occasions the results exceeded OSHA's limit. It was more than five times the limit. He was wearing a mask. He said his bosses promised to address the situation.
He and the others were aware of the dangers of the substance. His father worked at the plant and developed the disease. Employees in other departments got sick from a type of pipe that used to insulate the plant. Cheff said his uncle passed away from lung cancer. Teddy Skiba died from Mesothelioma.
The tiny strands can hurt the body in a number of ways. They can cause the heart to work harder to pump blood through the lungs, making them more prone to heart disease. There is some evidence that shows an association between exposure toAsbestos and stroke. Damage to the lungs can weaken the body's ability to fight illnesses, which can make a difference in the outcome.
In 2004, Umberto Bernardone, a retired member of the team, passed away from an arteriovenous malformation. Mario said that his father had trouble breathing. He had scars on his lungs. It was with him all the time.
The son of Buddy Vilardo said that his father died from a blood clot. He was older than 60.
When Cheetham fell ill in 2004, he had just retired. The doctor said it was cancer. After he died, Cheetham told his daughter that he wanted her to consult a lawyer. They showed up at his house when he was sick. Their friend was in a bed in his living room, under the care of a Hospice nurse.
He died before his birthday. His family was surprised by his autopsy, which showed he had died of skin cancer. His former co-workers did not know about the autopsy. For a long time, they thought his cancer was brought on by exposure to the carcinogens. The men were haunted by the memory of Cheetham's last gasp, a sign of what their futures might hold.
Governments around the world were protecting their people. In 1998, Saudi Arabia banned the use of the substance. The European Union had a ban on the substance by 2005. The European Environmental Bureau's head of chemical policy said it was a no-brainer.
The EPA could have done something about it. It could have been banned by congress. They crumpled in the face of pressure from the Chlorine industry.
The companies got ahead of the EPA in trying to impose a ban. According to records from the time, corporations testified that removing asbestos from chlorine plants wouldn't yield significant health benefits because workers were only minimally exposed, and that it wouldn't be economically feasible.
The EPA was obligated to regulate the substance in a way that was less burdensome to the industry. The EPA had to make a cold calculation, that banning the use of asbestos in chlorine plants would increase the companies' costs. The agency carved out an exemption for the mineral's use in the chlorine industry when it enacted anAsbestos ban.
According to company records made public through litigation and published as part of the City University of New York's ToxicDocs project, OxyChem had already developed screens that didn't need antacids. The companies are free from regulation.
A lobbyist stated in an internal communication that they had a win.
There was never a ban on the substance. In 1991, a panel of federal judges overturned the ban on the grounds that it was too burdensome. Several current and former employees said the decision was a blow to the EPA. Greg Schweer, an EPA veteran who ran its new-chemicals management branch before he retired, remembers the shock on the managers' faces. The office was filled with people who wanted to make a difference. Things didn't stay the same after that. The agency didn't attempt a chemical ban for 28 years.
Experts attribute a wave of lawsuits from people with diseases related to the substance to the fact that most industries stopped using it. The chlorine industry continued to use its screens. The substance was imported more than the weight of the Statue of Liberty.
The senator from Washington tried to get a ban through congress. In 2003 and 2007, she tried a number of times. Democrats in control of the Senate and House helped her cause. The company knew how much the ban would hurt it. Financial statements show that caustic soda and chlorine were the focus of the company's chemical operations. If the plants had to close, production would plummet.
Lobbyists that spent millions influencing policy and a political action committee that pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaigns each election cycle were part of the force on Capitol Hill that was owned by Oxy Chem. The American Chemistry Council made campaign contributions of its own.
The industry had a friend in the senator. Records show that at least a quarter of the plants in the country were located in Vitter's state. In June 2007, Vitter echoed the chlorine industry's talking point that its manufacturing process involved "minimal to no release of Asbestos and absolutely no worker exposure."
He said that if this were harming people or potentially killing people, we should outlaw it. There is no known case of disease linked to this technology.
That's then-Sen. Barbara Boxer said the chlorine manufacturing process was not as clean as she thought. In order to build support for the bill, proponents agreed to exclude products that might contain trace levels ofAsbestos, such as crushed stone, and the chlorine industry.
The Senate voted unanimously on the bill. Many of the public health advocates who championed the initial measure opposed the watered-down version because they said it had been practically gutted. Vitter did not respond to requests for an interview after he became a lobbyist.
Congress tried to ban the substance in the 15 years that followed.
Another federal agency had the power to protect the workers. OSHA used to visit the plant about every year. The plant was admitted into an OSHA program that spared it from scrutiny.
The Reagan administration created the Star Program to allow plants that can prove they are model facilities to avoid random inspection. The theory behind the program is that if companies are encouraged to follow their own best practices, they will be more likely to do so.
The former union leaders believed the program would make the facility safer and protect jobs. Updating the plant's safety practices was part of the application process. The union leaders said that OSHA inspectors came less often and announced their visits in advance. Spacone said that management spent months preparing when OSHA came to re- evaluate the plant. The place would be cleaned out. Everything would be clean The work stopped in certain areas. Representatives tried to keep what the evaluators saw to a minimum.
Records show that in the year of 2011, evaluators found the presence of the cancer-causing substance in certain areas of the floor. When dry, this can spread easily. Appropriate clean up procedures need to be in place. The plant wasn't given an official citation. They praised the plant's commitment to safety and health and recommended it for continued participation in the program.
Three years later, evaluators found that the plant didn't use the data from the air tests to spot problems. The person in charge of the program was untrained. The plant was allowed to stay in the program if it fixed the problems within a year. The leader of the department took a 56 hour course after the plant updated its software.
Between 1996 and 2021, OSHA made just two other trips to the plant. One of them had a full inspection. The plant was cited for not protecting workers from falls. There were no citations for the other visit.
With OSHA out of the picture, the plant's managers became more laissez faire about safety. He thought joining the Star Program was a mistake. In her experience, it was possible for plants to stay in the program after their commitment to safety had expired. She said they're in once they're in. Most of the time it is a ruse.
OSHA wouldn't make an official available for an on-the-record interview or comment on the findings of the ProPublica investigation. According to the Department of Labor, plants can be terminated from the program.
Four former union presidents told ProPublica that union leaders tried to deal with the problem on their own. The union asked management to add more people to the team. They said that the plant leaders wouldn't listen. One of the former presidents said it was a constant battle. It came back to the same thing.
Garfalo wrapped a roll of red caution tape around the building where his team worked because he was fed up with it. He put up as many danger signs as he could find. His managers hired professionals for a one-time clean, but warned him not to do it again, he said.
After retiring, Garfalo couldn't ignore a persistent cough that would sometimes startle him out of sleep. His doctor couldn't tell if his breathing difficulties were caused by his smoking habit, but he did say that smokers who are exposed to the substance have a higher risk of serious illness. When Garfalo climbed onto the roof of the cell-maintenance building to fix a fan a dozen years ago, he discovered that the entire roof was coated in the cancer-causing substance. There were train cars in the parking lot. He wondered how far the fibers had traveled when he looked at the homes less than a half mile away.
In August of 2021, the company said it was closing the plant due to unfavorable regional market conditions and rising rail costs. Its workforce went from more than 1,300 to about 150. Gulf Coast states have lower taxes and less regulation than the rest of the country.
The law used to protect it from environmental rules.
The Toxic Substances Control Act was updated in 2016 to remove the requirement that the EPA choose regulations that are less burdensome. The change gave the agency another chance to ban the substance, but it wasn't going to happen during the Trump administration, as the former president had claimed. Under the Biden administration, the EPA determined that there was an "unreasonable risk" for workers in chlorine plants to get sick from being exposed to the cancer-causing substance. The EPA Administrator proposed a ban for the first time in more than 30 years.
The rule could take a long time to be finalized. The American Chemistry Council and the Chlorine Institute are trying to get the EPA to rethink. The EPA has been accused of overestimating the risk to workers by industry-friendly scientists and consulting firms.
The vice president of the Chlorine Institute said her organization had no knowledge of the situation when asked to respond to the ProPublica report. The American chemistry council pointed to the plant's participation in the Star program as proof of its performance.
The industry groups argue that a ban would endanger the country's supply of chlorine and cause a drinking water shortage. The EPA and public health advocates disagree. According to them, only a small portion of the chlorine produced by the plants is used to clean the water and that they have voluntarily closed or reduced capacity at a number of the plants. In August, the company told investors that its plans to upgrade the technology at its largest chlorine facility wouldn't affect customers. For at least eight years, the company has been slowly updating some of its plants to a newer technology that separates the chemicals from each other.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the companies' products are used safely every day in the chlor-al alkali industry. Republican attorneys general include Ken Paxton of Texas. In a letter, they questioned whether the EPA has the authority to pursue a ban, signaling a readiness to take the agency to court. Most of the attorneys general did not respond to questions from ProPublica. A spokesman for the Nebraska Attorney General said that it would be misleading to suggest that the letter implied approval of the situation.
Industry leaders think they will win. "We've been engaged in this activity for quite a while and have pushed back on it," the CEO said. I don't think you'll see a final rule that's as proposed.
The final rule-making decision would not be commented on by Freedhoff. She said that the agency was not giving up on the science and that ProPublica's reporting underscores the need for action.
Lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would make it harder to challenge it in court. Linda Reinstein co-founded the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization with her husband, Alan, after he died of Mesothelioma. We are not leaving.
The health of hundreds of workers at the eight remaining chlorine plants is hanging in the balance. Employees at those facilities were contacted by ProPublica. The president of the union at the plant said he was comfortable with the way it was done. He doesn't think anyone sees this as a health issue. Everyone follows the rules and guidelines. Chris Murphy, who was the union president at the Alabama plant, said the conditions there were similar to those described by the workers. He said he had been told to remove it with a knife after seeing it on beams. His managers said there wasn't anything to it. You will be fine." I don't think it's that bad. He didn't wear protective gear because he wasn't told to.
The former OxyChem workers who still live in the Falls gather once a month to reminisce over Buffalo wings and beef. As they enter the post exposure time frame, they can only see if they develop symptoms.
He left the plant with a bad back. A grandfather of two is having lung trouble and is considering X-rays to see if there is any damage to his lungs. He wondered if he was not going down that road.
He sees the burden he is carrying as a tradeoff for what he used to have. It was fun to work there. I lived the American dream by raising four children and buying a house. He gave his son the go-ahead to work at the company if he stayed away from the hazardous material. How much more time has he left with his family?
He described it as a nightmare. It is a price you pay.