EPA rethinks decision to back out of asbestos issues

The Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering its decision to turn over questions on asbestos risks to other federal agencies, a top EPA official said Monday. Acting deputy administrator A. James Barnes, said EPA staffers ``kept coming up with questions. . . . It looked like some issues weren't sufficiently ventilated,'' as they prepared documents for officially referring asbestos questions to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last August, the EPA drafted a regulation that would completely ban all uses of asbestos over the next 10 years.

But the Office of Management and Budget refused to clear it for adoption.

On Feb. 1, the EPA said it intended to refer asbestos to the other two agencies.

Mr. Barnes said, and repeated on subsequent occasions, that the agency had discovered that federal law left it no choice but to back away until the other agencies had a chance to act.

More than 100 EPA employees later signed a letter of protest.

Barnes, who was EPA's general counsel, said he had instructed EPA staffers to suspend work on the referral while agency lawyers looked at the issues again.

According to medical authorities, asbestos fibers, when breathed, can cause respiratory illnesses many years later.

A growing number of lawsuits brought by workers or by their estates has led to a reduction in asbestos use in the United States by about two-thirds over the past 10 years.

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