Grace Settles $250 Million Asbestos Suit in Montana The Environmental Protection Agency announced a record settlement with W.R. Grace and Co. for the cleanup of asbestos materials in the town of Libby, Mont. The company will pay $250 million toward the massive cleanup effort. Hundreds of residents in the town have been sickened and killed by asbestos-related diseases.
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Grace Settles $250 Million Asbestos Suit in Montana

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Grace Settles $250 Million Asbestos Suit in Montana

Grace Settles $250 Million Asbestos Suit in Montana

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

It's been eight years since reporters first uncovered a deadly environmental and health disaster in Libby, Montana. More than 200 people in the town have died from asbestos-related disease. The asbestos in Libby came from a vermiculite mine owned by W.R. Grace and Co. Now, Grace has agreed to a record settlement to pay for cleanup costs, $250 million. It's the largest such payment in the history of the Superfund program.

Andrew Schneider was the reporter who first broke the story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. ANDREW SCHNEIDER (Correspondent, Seattle Post-Intelligencer): Thanks for having me back.

BLOCK: And tell us please, where did this asbestos ended up in Libby?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Where did it end up? Almost every conceivable place - the exhaust from the mine, which was six miles away, put tons and tons of asbestos fibers over the town. It'd get out in the afternoon and you will be able to write your name in the windshield of the car. People brought back waste tailings and used it to build driveways, it was in the school yards, on the ball fields, and then of course, it was in their products that they produce, the vermiculite-based insulation called Zonolite and it was in almost all of the homes and that is heavily contaminated with asbestos fibers. So you couldn't really get away from it there.

BLOCK: Now, the EPA went into Libby very soon after your report ran and started working on cleanup. How much have they spent in the last eight years on trying to clean up Libby, Montana?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: I don't have the most current figures, Melissa, but the last time I looked at it, there was an excess of 100 million.

BLOCK: And you're still seeing reports, there was a report just a month or so ago about an elementary school in Libby, some - a wall was knocked down, asbestos spilled out, the kids were picking it up and were exposed.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, the town is, I mean, it's just all over the town. I feel that it's a shame because it's just a gorgeous town and the valley's surrounded by beautiful Cabinet Mountains and the Kootenai River and it's just filled with this material.

BLOCK: The Montana senator, Max Baucus, has been calling for a whole lot more money to be spent on the cleanup. He says, this $250 million settlement is a drop in the bucket and he blames the EPA too, for not being able to tell the people who live in Libby how clean is clean. Is he right about that, do you think?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: I think, he's right about that but with all respect to the good senator, it's not due to a lack of effort on the part of the people in the field. The people that came out of the Denver office were about the most dedicated government types I've ever seen. For years, they fought not only their own agency, the U.S. Senate and the White House, but every corporate effort that graced it for (unintelligible).

And it was really interesting, Melissa, because when you ask them why they put so much of their life into this, they say that traditionally, in cleaning up Superfund sites, they are always doing this on the assumption that people will die. So for the first time, they were actually cleaning up a site where people were dying all around them - people they've gotten to know really well. So, well, Max maybe correct that EPA isn't doing enough but the problem surely isn't with the guys in the field, it's with headquarters.

BLOCK: We've been talking about a civil settlement for the cleanup here. The company, W.R. Grace also faces criminal charges at a trial that should be up coming. What are the charges there?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: The U.S. attorney in Montana filed a 10-count criminal indictments against seven current and former W.R. Grace officials who had knowledge or involvement in the operation of that mine. The charges included a variety of conspiracy charges, but also in knowing endangerment - the idea that they actually knew that the workers and the community was at risk and concealed it from first, the community and their workers and then the federal government. This charge alone brings a 15-year penalty so you're talking about perhaps, jail time, if found guilty and all, of 60 to 70 years, if they're not minor violations.

BLOCK: Well, Andrew Schneider, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Investigative correspondent, Andrew Schneider of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, his book about Libby, Montana is titled, "An Air That Kills."

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