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October 16, 2018

James Hardie Q1 profit slides 80 pct, warns of slower US recovery

* FX changes on asbestos compensation claims hit profit

* US housing market improving slower than expected

* Company’s FY 2015 outlook below analyst forecasts (Adds profit detail, shares, housing market outlook)

SYDNEY, Aug 15 (Reuters) – Australia’s James Hardie Industries PLC , the world’s biggest fibre cement products maker, said on Friday its first-quarter earnings tumbled and warned full-year profit will fall short of analyst expectations as the U.S. housing market recovers more slowly than it previously anticipated.

The firm, which generates two-thirds of its revenue in the United States and Europe, saw its Sydney-listed shares slump after it said net profit for the first quarter of its fiscal year skidded 80 percent. The earnings drop was mainly because of unfavourable changes in exchange rates as the company pays compensation for claims of health damage from historic use of asbestos in products.

Net profit for the three months to June 30 fell to $28.9 million compared to $142.2 million a year ago. Not including asbestos adjustments, gross profit grew 11 percent to $140 million, while revenue rose 12 percent to $416.8 million.

But the company, which supplies products like cladding for the outside walls of houses, presented a more muted outlook on the recovery in the U.S. housing construction market than it gave when it reported results for the previous fiscal year three months ago.

In Sydney James Hardie shares fell as much as 7.5 percent to touch four-month lows. By 0011 GMT the stock had recovered slightly, trading 6.8 percent lower at A$13.08.

In a statement to the Australian Securities Exchange, the company said while the U.S. market was improving, with housing starts in the first quarter up 4 percent from a year earlier, the improvement was at “a more moderate level than originally assumed for the year”.

“Recent flattening in housing activity has created some uncertainty about the pace of the recovery in the short-term,” the statement said. “Although U.S. housing activity has been improving for some time, market conditions remain somewhat uncertain and some input costs remain volatile.”

James Hardie noted analysts have forecast it will post operating profit excluding asbestos compensation costs of between $226 million and $261 million for the full financial year. But the company said it expects the result to be in the range of $205 million to $235 million, compared with $197.2 million for the previous year.

(1 US dollar = 1.0733 Australian dollar) (Reporting By Byron Kaye and Jane Wardell; Editing by Chris Reese and Kenneth Maxwell)

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James Hardie Q1 profit slides 80 pct, warns of slower US recovery

Asbestos proves to be a microscopic road block near Boulder City

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV geology professor Brenda Buck and associate professor Rodney Metcalf confer over samples in their lab. They found asbestos in Boulder City that is delaying construction of a highway bypass.

In November 2011, two UNLV scientists touched carbon tape to a sample of bluish-grey mineral on the face of a rock found south of Henderson, then placed it under a microscope. The computer screen showed telltale white fibers, long and slim, like miniature straws.

Asbestos is a mineral fiber found in rock and soil. In the ’60s and ’70s, it was a popular building material.

• Eldorado Hills, Calif.: Naturally occurring asbestos was found in this Sacramento suburb in September 2003 in the soil of the high school. In less than a year, after about $2.5 million in cleanup costs, the EPA and Oak Ridge High significantly cut the health risk to students by landscaping to reduce dust and prevent asbestos fibers from getting airborne.

• Clear Creek Management Area, Calif.: Atop one of the largest asbestos deposits in the world, this recreation area sits on a 29,000-acre serpentine deposit in San Benito and Fresno counties. Inside is the Atlas Asbestos Mine Superfund site, which first got the EPA’s attention in 1984 when large amounts of erosion caused asbestos to flow downstream into the California aqueduct. Since then, the water has been cleaned up, all the mines closed and measures taken to stop erosion. The Bureau of Land Management designated the area as hazardous and propped asbestos warning signs up at entrance points.

• Libby Superfund Site, Mont.: Libby, a former mining town of fewer than 3,000, has been on the EPA’s National Priorities List of most contaminated sites since 1983. In June 2009, it was designated a public health emergency. Contamination was town-wide, partly because residents used vermiculite as a soil additive in their gardens.

• North Ridge Estates Superfund Site, Ore.: Also on the National Priorities List, North Ridge Estates is a residential subdivision near Klamath Falls. Asbestos remnants were found across 50 acres of the neighborhood. The source: demolition debris from the Marine Recuperational Barracks, a complex of about 80 1940s-era buildings that housed soldiers recovering from tropical illnesses. In 2005, exposure risk was determined to be so high that residents were temporarily relocated for the summer when children were on school break and the climate was driest and windiest.

• Torch Lake Superfund, Mich.: From 1868 to 1968, copper mining and smelting operations dumped an estimated 200 million pounds of toxic tailings containing asbestos into Torch Lake on the east side of Lake Michigan. The primary concern is the ecosystem, particularly bottom-dwelling animals whose volume was, pre-cleanup, 20 percent contaminant.

• Carter Carburetor, Mo.: Carter Carburetor, a gasoline and diesel engine manufacturing plant just outside of St. Louis, was active from the 1920s to about 1984, when it was dismantled. Asbestos, found in machinery, furniture and building parts, along with toxic polychlorinated biphenyls and trichloroethylene used in the manufacturing process, were found at unacceptable levels.

It was what they feared: asbestos.

Asbestos used to be modern society’s friend — its strong, flexible, heat-resistant fibers mined and spun into insulation, fireproofing and decorative ceiling finishes. Only later was it discovered that, in certain forms, it can cause respiratory problems including scarred and inflamed lungs and, in extreme cases, cancer.

When UNLV geoscientists Brenda Buck, Rodney Metcalf and their colleagues published a scientific paper eight months ago on the presence of naturally occurring asbestos in Clark County, the effects were immediate and potentially far-reaching.

The discovery has stalled plans, more than 10 years in the making, to build a $490 million highway detour around Boulder City so traffic can move smoothly between Las Vegas and Arizona. Until that new highway is built, tourists, truckers and commuters must use Highway 93, which slices into town and slows miserably on busy days.

Beyond that, the first evidence of naturally occurring asbestos in Clark County may conceivably affect development not yet imagined. Asbestos becomes dangerous when disturbed, when it can be inhaled. That means construction potentially could whirl up a deadly cloud. Because the asbestos is a part of the landscape, cleanup is tough.

Bypass delays have frustrated the town.

“We can’t handle the traffic,” Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler said. “If there’s an accident, it shuts down the whole town. I think this community is tired of what’s going on, and they have been for 10 years.”

The Nevada Department of Transportation and Regional Transportation Commission, partners in the bypass project, are frustrated too, with their own questions: Where exactly is the asbestos-carrying rock? Will construction activity stir it into the air? What is the health risk to workers and travelers?

Construction was scheduled to begin this spring but was put on hold in April to allow for asbestos testing and analysis. Results are expected next month.

NDOT, which is leading Phase I of the project — a 2.5-mile connector heading east from Highway 95 — is prepared to begin construction as soon as it gets the green light. The RTC’s work — a 12.5-mile stretch that finishes the bypass to near the Colorado River — isn’t scheduled to begin until early 2015.

But construction plans may have to be adjusted to reduce workers’ exposure to dust, and bids still need to be sought for contractors.

“Everyone wants to make sure that we proceed in the right manner, and I think we’re doing that,” Tobler said. “I don’t think (the asbestos) is going to hurt the project like it has in other places. I think we’ll be able to move forward.”

But asbestos has a history of slowing major public work projects. In Ambler, Alaska, its presence in a gravel pit stalled an airport expansion and sewage lagoon project for more than a decade. Outside San Jose, Calif., it delayed a $718 million dam replacement for at least three years, and workers now are required to wear protective clothing and decontaminate before leaving the site.

There are no federal regulations for dealing with naturally occurring asbestos. It’s left to states to create regulations based on Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines addressing dust control, monitoring of air and soil, and worker exposure.

Nevada hasn’t created such regulations. Native asbestos doesn’t fall under county air quality standards, and Nevada OSHA has yet to address worker protection. For the most part, everyone is waiting for the test results or for the problem to come knocking on their door. Even the EPA, though aware of the Boulder City asbestos and acting as an adviser for mitigation, is waiting for a request from local officials before getting directly involved.

Meanwhile, Buck and Metcalf continue the research that sparked the issue.

Buck, who specializes in medical geology, started the asbestos study in 2011. A sample from the McCullough Range in Clark County, just south of Henderson, showed mineral actinolite — one of the six regulated forms of asbestos.

They teamed with scientists from the University of Hawaii, home to leading researchers on medical asbestos exposure, and started writing proposals for additional research funding, which they received in spring 2013. The mineral trail led them from the rolling, rocky hills of the McCullough Range overlooking Lake Mead to Highway 93 at Eldorado Dry Lake, a popular site for off-roading and Fourth of July parties, to the heart of Boulder City, beside Martha P. King Elementary School, and the outskirts of its southern and eastern neighborhoods. Every sample contained the fibrous amphiboles.

What was particularly concerning was that the type of asbestos fibers the geologists discovered are known to be particularly dangerous, and their breadth was much more extensive than what the UNLV team originally had thought.

“As soon as we found this out, we worked as fast as we could and as hard as we could to get the data published so that we could inform the public,” Buck said.

The fibers were similar to those found in Libby, Mont., where asbestos-rich mineral vermiculite was mined, leading to the town’s designation 15 years ago as a Superfund site. Many Libby residents have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses, including cancer, due in part to their churning vermiculite into their gardens and vegetable patches as a soil conditioner.

The size and shape of the fibers, along with the type of mineral, determine how toxic it is. If it’s small enough, it becomes respirable. Of the fibers Buck and Metcalf found, 97 percent were respirable.

Dormant, undisturbed asbestos isn’t typically a problem. It’s often left in buildings and insulation because it isn’t dangerous unless it becomes airborne. In fact, the act of removing it often presents more danger than leaving it alone.

But that won’t be possible in construction of the highway bypass because explosives are needed to cut a route through the hills.

Thus the challenge: How to ensure the health of construction workers and motorists?

Part of the task includes assessing how extensive the asbestos is. To that end, the geologists are training the transportation departments’ asbestos analysts to spot the kind of rock that hosts the fibers.

There is no known amount of safe exposure to asbestos. But Michele Carbone, a leading researcher of mesothelioma, the cancer linked with asbestos exposure, said the immediate health risks are minimal. Risk rises with the amount of exposure and the concentration of fibers. Signs of the disease may not be evident for 40 years or more.

“Obviously, there is a significant risk, but the odds are you won’t get cancer,” Carbone said. “It takes significant, prolonged exposure. It’s not like shaking hands with someone, and you get the disease. People shouldn’t panic.”

Carbone, of the University of Hawaii, is working with Metcalf and Buck to test their samples on animal and human cells. His colleague Francine Baumann, an epidemiologist specializing in asbestos exposure, is looking at rates of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses in Southern Nevada to determine if the population already is at risk. She’s looking for trends of disease in young people and women, people least likely to be affected from working in places where asbestos might be present.

Nevada is not a hot spot for the disease; as of 2009, mesothelioma struck only about 20 Nevadans a year, keeping pace with the national average.

“Until we know more, one solution is to try and reduce exposure,” Buck said.

Off-road enthusiasts, for instance, may be encouraged to ride somewhere other than the Eldorado Valley.

Today, Buck and Metcalf are mapping the area where the asbestos may lurk, looking into areas with similar geology such as Searchlight, Laughlin and Lake Mead. And they’re trying to get funding to collect air samples, to determine the risk of exposure from different activities, including four-wheeling, horseback riding or simply taking a walk in areas that contain the asbestos.

When they go into the field, they’re careful, wearing respiratory devices and protective clothing. They take their own cars instead of the UNLV geoscience department’s vehicles, so they don’t expose students. They’ve notified UNLV geology, biology and anthropology departments to close down contaminated zones to fieldwork.

They’re worried about their own exposure, having spent years in the field kicking up dust and hammering into contaminated rock. They’re hoping it’s not as bad as it could be.

But they won’t know the answers until their research is complete.

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Asbestos proves to be a microscopic road block near Boulder City

Asbestos in rocks won't stop northern Wisconsin mine, GTac maintains

Despite what one geologist calls an “abundant” quantity of asbestos-like mineral on the site, Gogebic Taconite has no plans to abandon efforts to develop a $1.5 billion open pit iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.

Bob Seitz, a spokesman for Gogebic Taconite, said Tuesday there are ways to address the release of any asbestos during the mining process, where rocks are crushed and the iron ore extracted with magnets. He says it could as simple as using water to control dust at the site.

“If it’s something we can handle and if we can demonstrate this to the state and federal governments, then we can move ahead,” says Seitz. “We’ll continue to do scientific testing as required by law.”

A pair of scientists have found at least 100 pounds of asbestiform grunerite in two piles within an old test pit in eastern Ashland County. The discovery is being called a game changer by mine opponents and has brought calls for GTac to stop work on a project supporters say could create hundreds of new jobs and boost the Wisconsin economy.

Grunerite is commonly known as “brown asbestos” and has been linked to lung disease in mine workers, according to a study in Minnesota. Grunerite is also similar to asbestiform particles found in the taconite tailings once dumped into Lake Superior by Reserve Mining, one of the costliest environmental cleanups in U.S. history in the 1970s.

Seitz is familiar with those issues but says mining operators in Minnesota today are familiar with handling the hazardous material and expects that similar procedures can work in Wisconsin.

“They treat it like any other workplace issue,” he said. “It’s been found in parts of the Mesabi Range and they’ve dealt with it there.”

Concerns over the mine project have intensified in the past week following a report in the Ashland Daily Press that UW-Madison Geochemist Joseph Skulan and Northland College Geologist Tom Fitz identified at least 100 pounds of grunerite on the mining site. It is the same mineral identified by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

The Bad River Tribe, which has opposed the project from the outset, has since accused GTac of covering up the issue as part of its public relations campaign to build support for the project. In July, the company wrote the DNR saying it did not think there was any asbestos on the site, even though a staff geologist suspected it following a site visit this spring.

“It’s a deal breaker,” said Bad River tribal chairman Mike Wiggins in a statement. “Geologists and children could walk in there and see it with the naked eye. This is a compelling, premeditation for disaster, a disaster that would befall the Bad River Reservation and non-tribal people of the Bad River Watershed.”

The Penokee Hills Education Project has also called for the project to be tabled because of asbestos issues.

Dave Blouin, a mining expert with the Madison chapter of the Sierra Club, doesn’t dispute there are ways to safely handle asbestos at the mine site, but says those methods may be too expensive to make the project financially viable.

“Even if you can engineer your way out of it, there are huge costs involved,” he says.

Moreover, given the glut of iron ore on world markets, Blouin questions whether investors would ever take a chance at a Wisconsin mine site where asbestos might prove a risk.

“There are much more attractive options out there if you are looking for an iron play,” he says.

The 2003 Minnesota study being cited by mining opponents concluded that exposure to asbestos was the most likely cause of 14 of 17 cases of mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer. The study also found that mesothelioma occurs at twice the expected rate among the population of the northeastern region of Minnesota where the Iron Range is located.

GTac spokesman Seitz says he is familiar with that study but noted that spouses of mine workers did not appear to suffer any health impacts, suggesting that any exposure to hazard materials is limited to the mining site itself and can be managed.

GTac earlier said it did not believe asbestos was at the site, based on exploratory work done by U.S. Steel several decades ago. U.S. Steel had the mineral rights for the site in the 1950s but never developed the mine, choosing instead to develop in Minnesota where the ore body was closer to the surface.

Asbestos is a set of naturally-occurring silicate minerals that became increasingly popular as a building material in the late 19th century for its sound absorption, resistance to fire and low cost. It was widely used as electrical insulation and in building insulation.

But in the early 20th century, researchers began to note lung problems and early deaths in asbestos mining towns. Despite those concerns, thousands of tons of asbestos were used in World War II shipbuilding. Later studies found 14 deaths from mesothelioma per 1,000 shipyard workers.

As worker safety and environmental concerns increased in the 1960s, efforts began to reduce public exposure. By the late 1970s, court documents proved that asbestos industry officials knew of asbestos dangers since the 1930s but had concealed them from the public, sparking lawsuits that continue today.

All European countries and much of the developed world have since banned asbestos. The U.S. has tight regulations on asbestos but not an outright ban, despite numerous attempts at legislation. It is still used here in brake pads, automobile clutches, roofing materials, vinyl tile and in some imported cement pipe and corrugated sheeting.

While any mention of asbestos causes great concern in this country, asbestos is still widely used in other places and is commercially mined in Russia. The New York Times recently detailed the asbestos industry in Russia, noting that the mines there are a major health concern both for workers and those living nearby.

Russia has the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos and mines about a million tons a year, exporting about 60 percent of it. Demand remains strong for asbestos in China and India, where it is still widely used in insulation and building materials.

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Asbestos in rocks won't stop northern Wisconsin mine, GTac maintains