Saving Grace

First the Environmental Protection Agency insulated W.R. Grace from claims that it poisoned workers and neighbors — and now, it seems, bankruptcy laws will.

For years, residents of Libby, Montana, were certain that they were being poisoned by W.R. Grace & Company’s vermiculite mine on the outskirts of town (see the Mother Jones magazine article, Libby’s Deadly Grace.) Now the Environmental Protection Agency has admitted that for years it had strong evidence showing the townspeople were right — but did little in response.

On Tuesday, the EPA’s inspector general declared that the agency had failed to act on its own data showing the dangers posed by the high levels of asbestos in Libby vermiculite, including a 1982 internal report that warned of “significant adverse health effects” among people working with the ore. Instead, the EPA continued to rely on figures provided by W.R. Grace showing only trace amounts of asbestos in the vermiculite.

But the EPA’s disclosure may come too late to help Libby residents. W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy on Monday, blaming “a sharply increasing number of asbestos claims” for its financial woes. The filing stops some 124,000 claims against the company, including unresolved cases from Libby. Last year, W.R. Grace reported an 81 percent increase in asbestos claims — many of which the company declares “unmeritorious.” The company has already paid out nearly $2 billion in asbestos-related claims.

Meanwhile, Libby is facing even more bad news. Preliminary findings from a recent study by the federal Agency for Toxic Studies and Disease Registry indicate that a third of the Libby residents who lived near or worked in the vermiculite mine have signs of asbestos-caused disease. A Spokane, Wash., pulmonary specialist who treats many Libby-area residents warned last year that new cases of asbestos-related disease may continue surfacing for the next 30 years.