Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Grace Knew About Asbestos Contamination of NJ Plant

I wrote before about the contamination of soil around the former W.R. Grace & Co. factory in Hamilton, New Jersey.

Turns out that, despite later denials and pleas of ignorance, Grace officials were well aware of what they were doing:
Internal memos show that top Grace managers were concerned about public acceptance of asbestos-tainted products, as well as the company's potential liability for selling them.

"This was the foremost question at Grace all along. The company recognized the possibility of liability all along," said Darrell Scott, a Spokane, Wash., attorney who has filed a class-action lawsuit against Grace on behalf of property owners in Washington state who bought and installed the company's attic insulation.

Internal reports show that despite the company's growing awareness of the dangers of its ore, unsafe working conditions persisted at the Hamilton facility until shortly before it closed in the 1990s.

A 1971 memo, in which company managers discussed their response to pollution citations at several processing plants, showed that Grace managers were reluctant to install emissions controls at the plants and determined to do so only if inspected and cited by health and safety regulators.

A decade and a half later, in 1987, one of the company's own inspectors remarked in an audit of the plant that housekeeping needed to be "significantly improved" to "help prevent safety hazards."
Federal EPA has indicted seven current and former executives of W.R. Grace in Montana for attempting to hide the fact that asbestos was present in vermiculite products in the company's Libby, Montana plant. But the problem didn't stay in Montana. The vermiculite was transported for processing to around 30 facilities across the country

Documents obtained from Grace from state and federal officals studing asbestos exposures at the Hamilton plant reveal that Grace attempted to control emissions, but with limited success.
The tests often showed fiber levels, monitored by personal devices worn by employees as they walked about the plant, to be within safety thresholds in most instances.

But air tests in sections of the plant, such as the area where waste rock was collected and at the furnaces, showed higher dust and fiber levels. Inspectors found dust levels exceeding government thresholds at the plant on some visits and insufficient safety materials on hand to protect workers.

Former workers, who describe working in clouds of dust at times, say that they occasionally spent hours cleaning before outsiders visited the plant.

Despite the company's frank internal discussions about its problems with tremolite, W.R. Grace publicly dismissed them, however.

In 1972, the superintendent of the Hamilton plant wrote the DEP a letter stating that "W.R. Grace does not use asbestos in the producing of any product."
Grace hired a consultant in the mid-1990s who claimed that the site contained only trace amounts of asbestos. The Environmental Protection Agency later found concentrations of asbestos as high as 40 percent in some surface soils on the property and declared it an "imminent and substantial threat" to current workers at the site and the surrounding community. The EPA and the FBI are conducting a criminal probe of the company's actions at the Hamilton plant.

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