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Bill removes natural asbestos obstacle for rural Alaska projects

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder

Some long-delayed projects in the Upper Kobuk region may now move forward thanks to legislation that paved the way for construction in areas that have naturally occurring asbestos.

Gov. Sean Parnell signed into law a bill last week that would allow the use of gravel aggregate with naturally occurring asbestos.

According to Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, the regulations regarding asbestos in aggregate had all but put a stop to development in the region for some time.

New home construction, road construction and work on a sewage treatment facility had all been put on hold. It was putting a noose on economic development, he said.

"We were able to work with all the state agencies and communities to craft a piece of legislation that will find a way forward for the communities to do the things that they need to do to stimulate economic development and build homes and complete some of the projects they needed to do," Joule said.

The state looked to California where similar legislation is in place to allow for construction in areas with naturally occurring levels of asbestos. While there was opposition by some in the Legislature to the law, which offers some protection to the state from lawsuits pertaining to asbestos exposure, the bill ultimately passed.

Standards and regulations must be followed for the use of aggregate with naturally occurring asbestos including public notice, workplace environmental controls and handling procedures.

Joule said testimony by the state epidemiologist concluded that ordinary dust in many villages was more of a health risk than the asbestos, though others debated the health risks.

Projects in some areas may move ahead this summer, Joule said, or at the very least, be slated for start next year.

"The bill was crafted so it was effective immediately on the governor’s signature, so hopefully we will begin to see the fruits of all that deliberation this summer but certainly by next season," he said.

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.