US: Firm Accused Of Asbestos Coverup Contamination Scars Montana Town
Federal prosecutors yesterday charged W.R. Grace & Co. with exposing mine
workers and residents in a small mountain community in Montana to deadly
asbestos and covering up the danger.
The Columbia-based chemical manufacturer stands accused of breaking
environmental laws and obstructing justice by misleading government
officials probing the widespread contamination. The company allegedly buried
a paper trail dating back to 1976 that traced how asbestos dust from its
mine had permeated the lungs of workers, their family members and even
residents who jogged on the high school running track in Libby, Mont.
Seven current and former employees also were charged with participating in
The death rate from asbestos in Libby and surrounding areas is 40 to 80
times higher than elsewhere in the state and the nation, according to the
indictment filed yesterday. A rare type of cancer that normally occurs in
nine in a million individuals shows up in at least 20 of the approximately
8,000 residents of the area, according to the indictment.
In 1977, an animal study commissioned by Grace linked the type of asbestos
from the mine to cancer, according to court papers. The company did not tell
its workers what it had found, prosecutors alleged. Although Grace improved
safety measures after it bought the plant, prosecutors now allege they were
Even after learning about the cancer link, Grace donated mining scraps to
the local high school to pave its running track. In 1981, a Grace employee
sampled dust kicked up by runners and told Grace in writing that he found
"surprisingly high" levels of asbestos fibers. Grace resurfaced the track
later that year, but according to the indictment, the company "failed to
completely remove" the contaminants.
Montana U.S. Attorney William W. Mercer said in an interview that what
happened in Libby amounted to a "human environmental tragedy" for which
Grace and several top officials must be held accountable. Environmental
Protection Agency officials say the Libby mine, which has been designated a
federal Superfund site, marks one of the most significant health disasters
they have ever faced.
Grace, which filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2001 because it was
facing thousands of asbestos claims nationwide, denies the charges. "Grace
categorically denies criminal wrongdoing," the company said in a prepared
statement. "We look forward to setting the record straight in a court of
Executives charged in some of the counts include three current Grace
employees: former mine manager Alan R. Stringer, who now represents Grace in
the Superfund cleanup; O. Mario Favorito, who was former corporate legal
counsel and is now assistant secretary; and senior vice president Robert J.
Bettacchi. Four former executives also were charged: Henry A. Eschenbach,
Jack W. Wolter, William J. McCaig and Robert C. Walsh.
Attorneys representing Stringer, Favorito, Wolter and Walsh disputed the
charges against their clients. Lawyers for the other men could not be
reached for comment. Mercer said the company and the seven individual
defendants could make their first court appearance as early as next month.
Environmental experts say material from the Libby mine afflicted many
people who never worked there. Thick dust from operations settled all over
town: near the railroad tracks where material was carted away, at a plant
that bordered the Little League baseball diamond, and on the high school
football field where team members scrimmaged. According to the indictment,
1,200 area residents have lung abnormalities because of exposure to asbestos
from the Grace mine. About 70 percent of them never worked at the site,
government lawyers said.
For decades, Libby residents picnicked near the mine site a few miles out of
town, took bags of contaminated mine waste to use in their gardens and as
attic insulation, and brushed fibers off their clothing.
Dean Herreid, a 40-year-old teacher who has been diagnosed with lung
problems tied to asbestos exposure, recalled stacking material from the mine
at the railroad tracks, then watching as the passing trains stirred up
immense clouds of dust. Libby Mayor Tony Berget said he even took a piece of
the mine's asbestos-contaminated vermiculite with him on a high school
wrestling trip to Europe, delighting his companions when he set fire to it
and caused a loud "pop."
Medical experts now say that spiky asbestos fibers in the dust from the
mining attack the lining of victims' lungs, often leading to persistent
hacking coughs, severe chest pain and shortness of breath. The health
effects can be so severe that sufferers like 88-year-old Dorothy I.
Kittilson, who lost two husbands to asbestosis and who uses an electric cart
to move around her house, must always carry oxygen tanks with them.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance that businesses once embraced as
a cheap way to insulate and fireproof homes and other buildings. In the past
few decades, its dangers have become clear as thousands of asbestos industry
workers suffering from lung problems and cancers filed lawsuits against
their former employers.
Grace, which employs more than 6,000 people worldwide -- 1,200 in Maryland
-- bought the Libby mine in 1963 from the Zonolite Co., which had been
running it for decades. Grace reaped profits of $140 million from sales of
contaminated products between 1976 and 1990, the indictment said.
The mine contained prolific deposits of vermiculite, a golden mineral used
in attic insulation, potting soil and fireproofing, including a spray
produced by Grace designed to keep the steel beams of buildings from melting
under extreme heat. But the vermiculite contained a deadly form of naturally
occurring asbestos, which workers had to separate along with other
contaminants and which wafted over employees, down the mountain and into the
As science evolved through the decades, Grace better understood the health
effects of asbestos and took steps to reduce exposure to dust levels, said
William M. Corcoran, vice president of public and regulatory affairs, in an
interview last week. But science did not evolve quickly enough, he said, and
people got hurt. Grace shuttered the mine in 1992.
"We take seriously our responsibility at Libby," Corcoran said. "We can't
turn back the clock and remove the exposure they experienced. If we could,
we would. All we can do today is give them as much support as possible with
their health problems, and that's what we're trying to do."
The indictment comes as another milestone looms in the long-running national
battle over asbestos. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) may introduce a bill later
this month that would create a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims.
Scores of companies, like Grace, have sought bankruptcy protection amid
lawsuits from former workers suffering from asbestos-related conditions.
Libby resident and longtime victims' advocate Gayla Benefield, 61, said both
of her parents died of asbestos-related diseases. She and her husband of 40
years have been diagnosed with lung abnormalities, and she worries about her
grandchildren, who attended a local school where asbestos was found.
"Grace has never come back and said, 'We're sorry,' " Benefield said one
recent afternoon from her log cabin overlooking the Kootenai River. "People
should not have to beg and negotiate for the future of their lives. Grace
knew what they were doing. . . . They didn't care if we died. They simply
walked way after they made their millions."
Johnson reported from Libby, ElBoghdady from Washington. Researcher Richard
Drezen contributed to this report.
Â© 2005 The Washington Post Company
AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
- 116 Human Rights
- 182 Health
- 185 Corruption
- 208 Regulation