By Theodora Filis
As the 8th Annual International Asbestos Awareness Conference (Asbestos: An International Public Health Crisis) comes to an end today, an email from Libby, Montana, pops-up in my mailbox. It's from a gentlemen who has just been diagnosed with Pleural Thickening – a common side effect of exposure to asbestos, and an early warning sign for mesothelioma and asbestosis – seeking answers to questions he has no idea he should be asking.
In February of 2004, W.R. Grace & Co. along with seven current or former executives were indicted in a federal court in Missoula, Montana, for breaking environmental laws and conspiring to cover up what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has described as the biggest environmental disaster to human health it has ever faced.
According to the EPA: “W.R. Grace and its executives, as far back as the 1970’s, attempted to hide the fact that toxic asbestos was present in vermiculite products at the company’s Libby, Montana plant. The grand jury charged the defendants with conspiring to conceal information about the hazardous nature of the company’s asbestos contaminated vermiculite products, obstructing the government’s clean-up efforts, and wire fraud. To date, according to the indictment, approximately 1,200 residents [out of a population of about 3,000] of Libby have been identified as suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality.”
A federal jury in Montana acquitted W.R. Grace and three of its former executives of knowingly exposing mine workers and residents of Libby, Montana, to asbestos poisoning and then covering up their actions.
W.R. Grace purchased the Zonolite mine, a branded trademark product produced from vermiculite, in 1963. The mine contained tremolite asbestos, winchite, and richterite (both fibrous amphiboles formed underground). Pure vermiculite does not contain asbestos and is non-toxic. Impure vermiculite may contain: asbestos, minor diopside, and remnants of biotit or phlogopite.
Investigations by the US Federal Government, found air samples from Libby, Montana, had high levels of fibrous tremolite asbestos, which is suspected of causing asbestos related diseases among former Zonolite employees and their families. In 1999, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, published a series of articles documenting extensive deaths and illness from the asbestos contaminated vermiculite at the Grace mine in Libby, Montana.
Reports claims that asbestos from the now-closed vermiculite mine on a mountain near Libby has killed 192 people and left at least 375 with fatal diseases. Thousands more who live or grew up in Libby are expected to die from asbestos-related diseases in the coming decades. The asbestos fibers contaminated not only workers at the mine, but also their families when they brought home the asbestos fibers on their clothing and in their hair. Even local ball fields and an athletic track were contaminated from fallout and fill.
Former President Bush, appointed Granta Y. Nakayama, head of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA), the enforcement division of the EPA. At the time of his appointment, Nakayama was serving as a "Partner for Environmental Law and Product Safety" at Kirkland & Ellis, a law firm in Washington, DC, that was representing W.R. Grace in its troubles with the federal government. The Senate confirmed Nakayama on July 29, 2005. Nakayama's law firm helped Grace file for bankruptcy and restructure so it could continue doing business.
The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act – the FAIR Act – sponsored by Patrick Leahy, the highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter. Many people in Libby, Montana believe this bill is nothing more than a way of pretending to help the victims of years of abuse by mining companies while actually making sure that those companies don't get sued too badly for all their wrongdoing.
A report on Nightline said: “The evidence is strong that the executives at Grace knew about the dangers of their product as far back as the 1960s, even before they bought the vermiculite mine in Libby. They suppressed evidence not only about their product but about the health of their employees. For more than thirty years they knowingly sent out a dangerous product that would be used in somewhere between 15 and 30 million homes across America.”
Several legal experts have raised questions about the evidence that was withheld from the jury because the judge deemed it overly prejudicial. David Uhlmann, University of Michigan law professor and former environmental crimes prosecutor at the Justice Department, told Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Andrew Schneider that, “Many questions now linger about what would have happened if the trial had been conducted in a manner that was fair to everyone involved.”
More than 250,000 asbestos-related suits have been filed against W. R. Grace. The company has closed its mine in Libby and has declared bankruptcy, restructured itself, and continues to make about $1.4 billion in sales per year.