andrew schneider investigates

April 21, 2009

Secret EPA report on Libby clean-up leads to lawsuit which will test Obama

Filed under: Uncategorized — Andrew Schneider @ 16:49

I just can’t get away from litigation involving Libby, Mont.

District Judge Donald Molloy has done all he can to make the legal battle between the U.S. government and W.R. Grace as exciting or painful as possible, depending which side of the courtroom your sitting.

We have about a week off before we have to assemble again before him.  (I’ll post another report later today to update you on the prosecution resting its case, or not.)

As I wait for the tiny aircraft to arrive to fly me home to Seattle, my “You have mail” signal goes off and the subject line says, “Secret EPA Report on Libby Clean-Up Sparks Lawsuit.”

It was a news release from PEER, the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. It is a union-like organization that has fought (and won) some major battles on behalf of government workers, usually protecting the workers from their own agencies.

The group filed suit today under the Freedom of Information Act because EPA has repeatedly refused to release the results of an investigation which examined the quality of the agency’s clean-up of the asbestos from the Grace vermiculite mine near Libby, said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s executive director.
What they’re seeking is a 2006 report by EPA’s main office of inspector general. Earlier attempts to get the report were denied saying it was “part of an on-going criminal investigation,” Ruch told me late today.

“The investigation is long concluded and I’m puzzled by the refusal to release any of the report now,” he added.

EPA IG at the time, Cory Rumple, ordered the investigation after some Libby townsfolk complained about the thoroughness of EPA’s removal of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from the town.

In a letter to PEER last year, Associate Deputy IG Mark Bialek wrote that releasing only the “summary of information and concerns of various EPA employees and private individuals . . . would still reveal the agency’s deliberative process,” reported the group, which is also well known for protecting government whistleblowers.

PEER said releasing this report would be a test for President Obama, who, the day after he was sworn into office, issued new directives on the Freedom of Information Act.

According to PEER, Obama said the government “should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed . . . ”

Christine Erickson, the PEER lawyer who filed he suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said people in Libby deserve to know whether EPA “kept its promises to them and performed the removal in the most protective fashion.”

The statement and letters to and from the EPA can be found at at this link.


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