W.R. Grace buys its old Libby mine, then bans EPA investigators from it
Tuesday, July 25, 2000
By ANDREW SCHNEIDER
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
The abandoned mine that caused the deaths and illnesses
of hundreds of miners and their families in Libby, Mont., has been
bought again by its longtime owner, W.R. Grace & Co.
Immediately after the purchase last week, Grace banned Environmental Protection Agency investigators from the asbestos-contaminated site.
As EPA lawyers examine their options for regaining access to the site,
the agency's health experts are warning everyone who lived in Libby
while the mine was open that they may have been exposed to harmful
amounts of asbestos.
In newspaper ads and radio broadcasts, the EPA cited tests for asbestos
in the air taken by Grace in 1975 and for the EPA in 1980. Both tests
showed high levels of asbestos in the center of the northwestern
Montana town, six miles from the mine. The tests were done
during rainy conditions, which could actually reduce the amount of
asbestos fibers in the air.
"We believe these were not isolated instances and that during dry weather,
during weather inversions over Libby and during periods of high production
at the mine or processing areas, asbestos fiber counts could have been
much higher," the EPA notifications said.
"Therefore it is clear," the public announcements continued, "that a person
was likely exposed to asbestos fibers simply by living in Libby."
The notice urged anyone living in Libby for more than six months prior
to Jan. 31, 1990, to get tested for asbestos-related disease by their family physicians or at a free screening clinic operated by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
"We're running the notifications because we believe that asbestos exposure
from the mine might have reached far more people than originally believed,"
says Paul Peronard, who has been coordinating the EPA's emergency
response team in Libby since the week after the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported the health problems in November.
"Too many people view this as a problem for the miners at the old
vermiculite operation," Peronard says. "Too many people believe the
only ones getting sick and dying are the people who worked there.
That clearly is not the case. We need to get everyone who lived in the
area when the mine operated in for testing."
The P-I reported last year that dozens of miners' family members were
killed or sickened by asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Many
more have since been added to the casualty list by the EPA and
other government researchers.
The Lincoln County Health Department in Libby reported last week
that medical screening, started only recently, has already identified 48 non-occupational cases, the majority of them in families of miners.
Of greater concern to Peronard's team and the other health
investigators is that 18 of those cases were people
who had no family connection to the mine.
"These 18 look like their exposure may have come from just living in
Libby, and that's why we want everyone examined," Peronard says.
"There is a lot about that old vermiculite mine that we don't know."
For nearly six decades, the mine was the nation's largest producer of
vermiculite. The processed ore, called Zonolite, was used in insulation,
lawn and garden products and fireproofing. Millions of tons of the ore
was shipped across the country for processing at hundreds of plants.
At several of the plants, the P-I found that the work force had been
decimated by asbestos-related disease. The EPA is investigating all
of the plants to see whether an asbestos hazard remains.
Grace closed the Libby mine in 1990, and three years later sold the
property to Kootenai Development Corp., which planned to develop
the land into a hunting reserve and someday, the owners said,
a housing development.
Grace's action banning EPA from "old Zonolite Mountain" and the other
areas it repurchased is frustrating the agency's efforts to complete the
cleanup of asbestos, Peronard says.
The move by Grace was surprising to some in light of the fact that the
company has repeatedly said it "takes its responsibility to the people
of Libby seriously" and "will do everything possible to
expedite the cleanup."
Last Friday, just days after Grace took ownership of the Kootenai
Development Corp. property, the EPA received a letter from
Grace's lawyer David Cleary. The letter said: ". . . the USEPA
and its representatives, contractors, agents or guests are hereby
forbidden from entering any KDC property."
William Corcoran, Grace's vice president for public and regulatory
affairs, says Grace ordered the federal agents from the mine because the company received a letter from the EPA that it didn't like or understand.
"They sent us a letter the day before (we issued the ban) saying we had
24 hours to sign some sort of an agreement to give them access to the
site and we didn't know what that meant," Corcoran said. "So we said,
'We're not going to sign your letters.'
We want to know what access means."
The EPA letter to which Grace took umbrage appears fairly clear
as government documents go. It told Grace, the company responsible
for the asbestos contamination, that the EPA wants to enter the mine
to sample the soil, water and air and any other material disposed of
on the site. It wants to store the asbestos-contaminated soil from the
old Grace sites in town and elsewhere on the mine property and take
"other actions deemed necessary to protect human health
and the environment."
Peronard said there was nothing complex in the letter.
"We still have a lot of investigative work to do up there to determine
the risk that the mine site poses," he said. "We're still trying to answer
the question of whether asbestos is still leaving the site. Is it blowing
around up there? How far out does the asbestos contamination occur?
We have a lot of work to do and the mine is the heart of the problem."
Kenneth Lund, a lawyer representing KDC/Grace, wrote to the EPA
saying the agency could take the asbestos-contaminated soil and haul
it to a hazardous-waste disposal facility in Spokane, or pay the
company to dump it on the old mine property.
Peronard's only comment was, "We're not going to pay Grace a penny."
P-I senior national correspondent Andrew Schneider can be reached at email@example.com or 206-448-8218.