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Many people think the importation, use and sale of asbestos, one of the world’s most dangerous known substances, is illegal in this country.

That would be a reasonable assumption. After all, more than 60 countries worldwide have banned it.

Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to ban asbestos in the late 1980s, but industry legal action managed to thwart that effort.

Since then, several other attempts have all failed. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington sponsored and passed an asbestos-ban bill more than a decade ago, after the horrifying asbestos-related disease toll in and around Libby became known. But last-minute industry-backed wording changes in that legislation gutted it.

Then, as a new version of TSCA, the Toxic Substances Control Act, was passed in 2016, backers of a ban had new hope. Asbestos was placed on the list of the first 10 chemicals that the EPA would evaluate for a potential ban.

But in 2016, we elected a president who has said that asbestos is “perfectly safe when correctly applied,” and refuses to believe or acknowledge its toxicity. After two years, EPA is slow-walking the evaluation of asbestos, while imports soar.

Russia and Brazil are the largest exporters of asbestos to the United States.

In one month of 2018, trade records indicate more than 250 metric tons of the substance were imported, mostly for use in the chloralkali industry. And we are no closer to an asbestos ban than we were when TSCA was passed more than two years ago.

Meanwhile, asbestos-related disease continues to kill nearly 40,000 people a year in this country.

Right now, under EPA rulemaking, the location of the factories where all that imported asbestos is being used is considered “confidential business information.” So nobody knows for sure where the asbestos is going, what factories are using it, how waste is being disposed of, or anything else about a projected 500-plus metric tons being brought into the country each year.

Also now, an estimated 15 million houses nationwide — could be less, could be more — have Zonolite loose-fill insulation from Libby — highly contaminated with asbestos — in their attics and walls. And an unknown number of schools and public buildings also still have the deadly mineral in their innards.

Several things need to be done, and done quickly.

The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an advocacy organization for victims of the deadly disease and their supporters, has worked on legislation to ban asbestos and recently petitioned the EPA to make public the information regarding imported asbestos. And that petition to EPA can and should be supported by all three members of the state’s congressional delegation. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who visited both Butte and Libby recently, should certainly understand how important this effort is.

And although the Alan Reinstein Ban Asbestos Now Act (named after a victim of mesothelioma, an asbestos-caused cancer) will not pass this session, it will be reintroduced in the next Congress.

Montana’s senators can and should play a key role.

U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines already have done much, particularly for affected Libby residents. Both Tester, a Democrat, and Daines, a Republican, have pushed hard for funding for Libby’s asbestos-related disease clinic.

Tester was a co-sponsor of the previous asbestos-ban bill.

In the next Congress, it is important for both Tester and Daines to co-sponsor the asbestos-ban bill, and mount a bipartisan push for its passage.

That bill should include a mandated survey of existing buildings across the country for Zonolite and other asbestos contamination — a step the EPA was once close to taking, but backed off on.

Montana’s terrible asbestos legacy — nobody knows when incidence of asbestos-related disease, or mortality from it, will even peak in Libby, where more cases are being diagnosed every month — makes it a logical place for action against the substance to be centered.

Tester and Daines have the opportunity to take a giant step — not only for Montana, but for the nation — to repudiate a shadowy industry’s hold on Congress, and to change the paradigm at last to guard American industry and consumers.

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This editorial originally appeared in the Montana Standard. 

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