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Montana asbestos cleanup will be costliest ever

It was one of the worst cases of industrial pollution ever — the asbestos contamination of Libby, Montana. Now, the company responsible, Maryland-based W.R. Grace, will pay the biggest fine in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund cleanup program. Allison Connolly writes about it in the Baltimore Sun. The asbestos contamination from a mine operated by Grace caused 1,200 residents and mine workers to get sick or die from related ailments.

There’s a pretty sordid history behind the case, including Grace initially keeping the presence of asbestos a secret and the federal government’s bungled response to the health crisis, which went far beyond Libby. There’s some background on the contamination at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease Web site. But to really see how the tragedy hits home, read the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s series, “A Town Left to Die.

Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook is quoted in the Sun article:

Joan Claybrook, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, said the asbestos contamination in Libby was one of the worst cases of contaminant exposure ever seen in the United States. Workers carried asbestos-laden dust home from the mines on their clothes. Material from the mine was used in building the high school running track and an elementary school ice skating rink, and to fertilize gardens of Libby residents.

“It spread to every element of the town, and it was all over the place,” she said. “You couldn’t live in Libby and not be exposed to it.”

Claybrook said the impact of the settlement was unclear. “The problem is that it’s hard to tell … exactly what the cleanup involves and whether or not it will deal with the issues that were affecting the families there,” Claybrook said. “I don’t know if it’s a fair settlement or not. It sounds like an awful lot of money. I don’t know if it’ll do a complete job or people in Libby are happy about that.”

The Seattle P-I’s story about the EPA fine figures the money may fall well short of what it takes to clean up Libby.

“Getting anything they can from Grace is good, but the graveyard is filled with miners, their families, my parents and others who were killed by the asbestos in the ore that Grace mined for years,” said Gayla Benefield, an activist who, with her partner Les Skramstad, fought to bring attention to the plight of their community.

“Obviously, this money will not bring them back, but maybe, just maybe, it may pay for the cleanup that will make this community safer for those who survived.”

“Don’t forget” she added, quoting Skramstad, who died last year, “no one from Grace has ever come back to say they were sorry.”