The Associated Press is reporting that last month MSHA inspectors found tremolite asbestos at a quarry owned by the Ash Grove Cement Company, part of its Kaiser plant in Jefferson County, Montana.  The article quotes MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere saying that asbestos is present in the pit as “isolated occurrences” due to geologic intrusions in certain zones of the quarry.

Isolated occurrences?….of asbestos?

I pray this quote was taken out of context.  Surely no one at MSHA would dare minimize the serious risk to workers’ health from exposure to asbestos—even if the source of their exposure is “isolated occurrences” of asbestos. 

After all we’ve learned and families have suffered from “mere geologic intrusions of asbestos” at a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, I hope that MSHA officials are not discounting the severity of this potential health risk.   It does make me wonder, however, why someone at MSHA would even choose to characterize a potential hazard from asbestos in this way.  Using the term “isolated” suggests the hazard is remote, inaccessible, out-of-the-way.  It seems to me to be a pretty nonchalant way to characterize the presence of asbsestos at this quarry.  

MSHA’s on-line data indicates that the last inspection at the mine was in November 2008, but there’s no evidence that inspectors collected air samples to check for respirable dust, asbestos or other contaminants.  (In fact, the last industrial hygiene samples collected at the mine were taken in 2005.)  That tells me that there has been a more recent inspection and the results of the air samples or bulk material referred to in the AP story are not yet posted on MSHA’s website.   

  • Does MSHA have information that gives it confidence that workers’ health is not at risk from the asbestos in the ore?
  •  Can MSHA tell us that the Ash Grove Cement company’s dust control measures are the cream-of-the-crop, so that even if any asbestos fibers were released during the mining and milling process the potential for worker exposure is nill?
  • Is there more that MSHA should be telling the workers, residents and the public about operations at this mine?

I’m not pointing a finger at the MSHA spokesperson for using the term “isolated occurrences” because I know she is only repeating what she’s been told by the agency’s senior officials.   That, however, is what’s troubling to me:  are there people in charge at MSHA who are so ill-informed to use the term “isolated occurrences” of asbestos?  

That, Labor Secretary Solis, is a scary thought.

Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is an assistant research professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at USDOL from 1991-2001, including 6 years at MSHA.