EPA discovers it ignored, minimized asbestos study

Use of tainted ore in building products escaped oversight

July 22, 2000
By Michael Moss & Adrianne Appel
New York Times

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating why its own officials ignored evidence for 18 years that W.R. Grace and Co. had used ore laden with asbestos in an array of building products.

An agency study in 1982 found alarming levels of asbestos in ore that Grace had said included harmless amounts of the material, which can cause cancer.

But the agency shelved the report, scuttled follow-up studies and continued to accept the company's lower figures, EPA officials said this week.

That allowed Grace, a maker of specialty chemicals and building materials, largely to avoid government scrutiny and use the ore in products, like fireproofing, that the company promoted as a safe alternative at a time of growing anxiety about asbestos.

The widely used fireproofing materials, as well as attic insulation and other products, remain in thousands of homes and offices.

But the health risks are unclear, because it is not known how much asbestos may be present in the products. Grace said it tried to remove as much asbestos as possible during processing. EPA officials are advising homeowners to call the agency for more information if they are concerned that they may have the company's loose-fill insulation, known as Zonolite, in their attic.

Moreover, EPA officials said this week, an agency official misrepresented the report in 1983 and downplayed its findings in responding to congressional inquiries about the level of asbestos in the ore.

The report resurfaced after the EPA began an investigation in December into a health crisis in Libby, Mont., where Grace mined the ore, known as vermiculite, until 1990. Workers and town residents are dying from lung disease at rates far above the national average. Agency officials are poring through thousands of documents to figure out why the government failed to properly oversee the mining operation and why EPA officials didn't follow up their report.

The report, letters and other records have been sent to the EPA inspector general, who plans to begin an inquiry Monday, agency officials said.

"We don't ask our inspector general to do an investigation lightly,'' said Steve Johnson, deputy assistant administrator of the office of prevention, pesticides and toxic substances. "We want to know precisely what did happen.''

EPA officials said this week that they had uncovered Grace documents that show high levels of asbestos in the ore. Paul Peronard, head of an EPA team trying to clean up the Montana mine site, said, "It doesn't appear to me that the data contained in the documents were shared with anybody else.''

Grace officials Friday did not dispute the EPA report, but said their own studies had consistently shown much smaller amounts of asbestos.

``Our results from measuring the ore do not find the same thing that EPA's results do,'' said William Corcoran, vice president of public and regulatory affairs for Grace, which is based in Columbia, Md.

Questions about the mining operation were touched off by newspaper articles last fall on the health problems of Libby workers and residents. Lawsuits they have filed accuse Grace of covering up the hazards posed by the mining
operation.

Corcoran said: "We don't believe we've ever covered them up. We know people have been hurt.'' He said Grace's preference is to continue trying to settle the lawsuits.

The ore went into insulation that Grace began selling in the early 1960s.

 

 

copyright San Jose Mercury News