CORPORATE FOCUS: A (Second) Civil Action

At the end of the millennium, W.R. Grace should be considered a candidate as one of the world's most rapacious corporate predators.Of course, if you have seen the movie A Civil Action or read the book by the same title, you are aware of the injury inflicted by this multinational chemical company. A Civil Action told the story of how five children and one adult died of acute lymphocytic leukemia from exposure to chemicals in the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts.The Environmental Protection Agency found Grace and a second company responsible for dumping the toxic chemicals that poisoned two of Woburn's wells. Grace paid $8 million to eight families to settle their lawsuits against the company.Grace was indicted by the Department of Justice on two counts of lying to the EPA about the amount of hazardous chemicals it used at its Woburn plant. In 1988, Grace pled guilty to one count and was fined $10,000.As protesters were fighting off the police and the effects of being gassed in the streets of Seattle during the WTO meetings, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the local corporate newspaper, began running a series of articles documenting Grace's most recent outrage.The paper reported that at least 192 people have died of asbestos-related disease from a mine near Libby, Montana that was owned by Grace for nearly 30 years. At least another 375 have been diagnosed with the fatal disease. The Post-Intelligencer detailed how federal, state and local agencies had not stepped forward to help the people of Libby, either denying knowledge of the problem or pointing to other agencies for solutions.For three decades, Grace mined enormous deposits of vermiculite in the earth of nearby Zonolite Mountain. Under the vermiculite are millions of tons of tremolite, a rare and exceedingly toxic form of asbestos. For centuries, the tremolite lay undisturbed and harmless beneath a thin crust of topsoil. But mining the vermiculite has released the deadly asbestos fibers into the air.The paper quoted Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a lung specialist from Spokane and an expert in industrial diseases, as saying that another 12 to 15 people from Libby are being diagnosed with the diseases -- -- every month. According to Dr. Whitehouse, it takes anywhere from 10 to 40 years from the time a person is exposed to dangerous amounts of asbestos for the diseases to reveal themselves.Since 1984, 187 civil actions have been filed against Grace on behalf of Libby's miners and their families, the paper reported. There are 120 cases pending. In the others, Grace has either been found liable and been ordered to pay damages in a jury trial, or it settled out of court, often shortly before the trial was to begin, the paper reported.At a community meeting last week in Libby, residents and workers at the mine said that Grace managers told miners the dust was harmless. One Libby resident, Patrick Vinion, told the crowd of his fears for his three children. "In the local paper our health department says we only have 1 percent tremolite in our town," Vinion said. "One percent of tremolite is not acceptable no matter what anybody says. One percent of tons of tremolite and I guarantee it will kill your kids.""When my father was a young man they told him -- 'You can't eat enough of that stuff. It won't bother you.' He's dead," Vinion said. "When I started getting sick when I was younger, they told me, 'You never worked there. It's not possible. You can't get it that way.' Well, it's more than possible. I'm dying of it."At the hearing, Roger Sullivan, a lawyer representing many of the residents of Libby against Grace, explained how the largest stack in the ore-processing mill spewed 10,000 pounds of asbestos each day, and how the wind would disperse it over the town. He said the sparsely covered tailings pile, given a clean bill of health by state investigators, still contains 5 billion pounds of asbestos, the paper reported.As expected, the company says it did no harm."Obviously we feel we met our obligation to our workers and to the community," Jay Hughes, Grace's senior litigation counsel told the paper. Hughes said the company spent "millions" to upgrade safety conditions and reduce dust at the mine.Reporter Andrew Schneider and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have dug down and found a dirty company committing yet another dirty deed. A town has been killed, its residents are dying.Perhaps its time for the district attorney in Lincoln County and the U.S. Attorney in Montana to see if justice can be done.Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

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