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US: Asbestos Tainted Ore Affected Thousands, Suit Charges

by Cat LazaroffEnvironment News Service
February 1st, 2000

A class action lawsuit filed Monday seeks cleanup and medical monitoring funds to help more than 26,000 people exposed to asbestos from contaminated vermiculite ore. The suit alleges that decades of unsafe mining operations in Libby, Montana have led to illness and death for thousands of mineworkers, processing plant employees, and Libby residents.

For more than 60 years, W.R. Grace & Co. dug vermiculite ore out of the Zonolite Mountain in Libby. Vermiculite is a volcanic mineral compound that expands when wet. It is used in agricultural, construction, horticultural and industrial applications, including pesticides, insulation, potting mixes, brake pads, sound deadening materials, fire protection, paints, sealants, insulating concrete and nuclear waste disposal.

The ore at the Libby mine, which closed in 1990, was contaminated with tremolite, a rare form of asbestos. Tremolite asbestos is a particularly deadly form of asbestos because it consists of sharp needle like fibers which easily penetrate the linings of the lungs. The lungs are unable to remove these tiny spears, which cannot be coughed out or washed out of the lung tissues by blood.

Lungs infected with tremolite become inflamed and eventually scarred, a condition called asbestosis. Heavily scarred areas can no longer function, and victims become unable to breath effectively, because oxygen cannot get into the lungs and carbon dioxide and other impurities cannot get out.

Dust from the mine settled over the town of Libby, affecting many who worked outside of the mine. Ore from Libby was shipped to at least 60 processing plants across North America and Puerto Rico, and workers at those plants are believed to have been affected as well. The actual number of affected persons is unknown, as the mine and plant worker populations had a high turnover rate.

Commercially available vermiculite products are purified at these processing plants, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is investigating the impacts of the Libby ore, does not believe that finished products pose a hazard to the public. Ore from other vermiculite mines has not been found to contain asbestos.

In November 1999, the "Seattle Post Intelligencer" reported that at least 192 people in Libby have died over the past 40 years from asbestos related illnesses linked to the Zonolite mine. Most died of asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung lining. More than 375 other people in Libby have also been diagnosed with asbestos related diseases.

According to court documents, company memos and government papers, federal regulators and W.R. Grace officials were aware of the danger presented by the ore, but took no action to inform and protect the public.

In a 1991 deposition taken in a civil suit against the company, Robert Junker, treasurer and superintendent of the Grace processing plant in Dallas, said, "To tell the public about a potential hazard - that's what this is, a potential hazard - is kind of asinine. ... It's bad for business.''

At The Scotts Co. -- one of Grace's largest customers - respiratory problems among workers prompted the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to lead an investigation in 1978. The study documented the hazards of tremolite, but the agency did not inform the companys workers.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Helena district court alleges "a pattern and practice of unsafe mining operations and the long-standing concealment, by W.R. Grace & Co., of the true hazards, and continuing dangers, of tremolite exposure," according to a press release from San Francisco based Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein, one of the two law firms involved in the case. Lukins & Annis, based in Spokane, Washington, filed suit along with the San Francisco firm.

Over the years, 187 asbestos related lawsuits have been filed against W.R. Grace. Of these, 67 have been resolved with the company either settling out of court or found liable and ordered to pay damages.

The class action suit is the largest legal action yet taken against W.R. Grace over the tremolite contamination. The action comes in the wake of a January announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it is expanding its investigation of the Libby mine to include processing plants across the nation.

The suit seeks a court order creating and implementing a court controlled, W.R. Grace funded, medical diagnostic program for the benefit of asbestos exposed residents and workers.

The proposed program would include:

  • medical screening to ensure the early detection and treatment of diseases caused by tremolite, including asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma;
  • maintenance and operation of a medical registry that keeps track of relevant health data;
  • dissemination of medical data to public and private health institutions to promote significant medical research into new treatments for the often-deadly diseases caused by tremolite;
  • and funding of beneficial medical research and procedures for prompt reporting to health-care providers of developments relating to the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases.

The attorneys are not seeking punitive damages, but may add damage claims to the suit later.

On January 20, W.R. Grace announced it will fund a three part health care program for Libby residents to detect and provide medical insurance for anyone diagnosed with asbestos related illnesses. Grace committed to donate $250,000 a year for as long as necessary to St. John's Lutheran Hospital to provide independent health screening to anyone in Libby who wants it.

The company will also assure that the hospital has the necessary infrastructure to conduct the independent screenings, and provide medical coverage to anyone in Libby who, after receiving an independent screening, is diagnosed with an asbestos related disease.

"Grace takes its responsibilities to the people of Libby and the situation there very seriously," said Paul Norris, chairman and CEO of W.R. Grace. "People who have concerns about their exposure to asbestos now will have an independent place to go and be tested. If anyone is diagnosed with an asbestos related illness, they will have insurance to cover the medical costs of treating it."

The EPA is conducting a comprehensive study of the tremolite contamination in Libby, with teams of experts taking air and soil samples from dozens of homes. At the request of Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, a team of federal hazardous waste experts from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, has traveled to Libby to set up a plan for screening residents for asbestos exposure. The federal government is paying for the team.

Elsewhere, the federal governments response to asbestos and tremolite contamination has not been as rapid or comprehensive. In Sparta, New Jersey, the agency has been criticized for its slow action on contamination from a stone processing operation. Near Sacramento, California, new homes are being constructed in an area of naturally occurring tremolite. Melissa Vargas, an area resident, says the official response to hazards there "can only be classified as criminal."





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