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On Thursday, jury selection begins in the trial of W.R. Grace and seven former employees. The indictment charges these folks with conspiricy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud. Charges were filed four years ago and it has taken ’til now for these killers to come to trial.

Back in the twenties, the Zonolite Corporation began mining vermiculite on a mountain outside Libby, Montana. In 1963, the W.R. Grace Company, the giant chemical manufacturer bought the mine. In the sixties and seventies, Grace did some studies and found that their workers, who complained that they didn’t have the energy to climb the slope up to the mill were not just lazy loafers. They were dying, from inhaling the two and half tons of tremolite asbestos released by the mine each day and living and working in the thick layers of vermiculite dust. Those studies were never released to the workers, much less to the public. Over 200 people have died in Libby and more than a thousand are sick.

Grace scientists petitioned the court to not allow the use of their studies because they were made indoors. Everybody knows that nobody would be stupid enough to bring a dangerous poison like tremolite asbestos into their homes and businesses. Oh, well except maybe for the 33 million homes in the country where the Zonolite from the Grace mine was used used for insulation. The court is going to allow a limited use of the Grace studies insofar as they help the jury understand that the company knew about the hazards of asbestos.

midvalleyEPA and other government agencies have been “studying” the problem since 1999. At a hearing of the Environment and Public Works committee in Congress in September, Senator Max Baucus called the findings of the committee an “outrage”. He said that the “political appointees at EPA, OMB and the White House ignored officials on the ground, ignored the law and ignored the health needs of Libby” in not declaring a public health emergency. In a 50-page report reviewing 14,000 EPA documents, Bacus and his staff declared that the “EPA and OMB have played fast and loose with the facts and the law. They have put saving money over saving lives.” In 2002 after a meeting between EPA, OMB, CEQ and the White House, the decision was made to delay once again the declaration of a health emergency that would have given the Libby victims access to sorely needed health resources.

Last year W.R. Grace declared bankruptcy after putting up a paltry $250 million for the investigation and cleanup of Libby. Today Grace is making plans to come out of bankruptcy and, according to the Baltimore Business Journal expect “…to seek up to $1.5 billion to fund it’s reorganization.”  I wonder how much of the federal economic stimulus package will go to W.R. Grace for destroying one of the best places in Montana? If this had happened in any place besides a backwater Montana town that nobody had ever heard of, or if they had fewer influencial friends, W.R. Grace would be permanently out of business.


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