andrew schneider investigates

May 4, 2009

W.R. Grace’s top PR executive says he didn’t lie, he just never saw studies showing vermiculite insulation was dangerous.

For me, it was surreal to see W.R. Grace Vice President William Corcoran on the witness stand in the Missoula courtroom in the criminal trial last week.
He is the boss of public and regulatory affairs for the world wide company, which means he deals with the press and congress and he’s well suited to do both. He and I both became involved with Grace in 1999, and that’s when we met.

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He told the jury on Thursday that neither he nor Grace’s new CEO had ever heard about the problems in Libby, Mont. until a Seattle newspaper wrote about them just before Thanksgiving of that year. That paper would have been the now-deceased Seattle PI.
Off and on for much of the last decade Corcoran and I would often thrust and parry over what his company had done and what I was writing about it — the mine, fireproofing in the World Trade Center, a declaration of a Public Health Emergency — different topics written for different newspapers.
Corcoran had several things going for him. One, he knew the hot points of environmental regulation because he’d served in top positions on both House and Senate committees handling some of the thorniest environmental issues of the day.   The other thing in his favor was that he isn’t a lawyer.
The interesting thing about our “relationship” (to me) was that I  knowingly only caught him in one lie, half-truth or misleading statement during all those years, which is a hell of a record for most top public relations practitioners.
That deception (in my view) was in his now famous letter of April 10, 2002, to then-EPA Administrator Christy Todd Whitman.   He told the EPA leadership that Zonolite Attic Insulation, which was made from asbestos-tainted vermiculite from Grace’s mine in Libby, was not dangerous.   According to Grace shipping papers, the ZAI was installed in somewhere between one million and 35 million homes and businesses across North America.
In his letter, Corcoran wrote that the insulation poses no risk to human health or the environment and contains “biologically insignificant amounts” of asbestos fibers.
But according to tests and studies run by Grace and later confirmed by the EPA, the insulation can be dangerous as hell.
To a point, Corcoran is correct, ZAI presents minimal risk if it’s never touched or disturbed. However, but if the vermiculite is disturbed by a child playing in the attic, a cable or telephone installer or anyone doing even minor renovations, high levels of asbestos fibers will be released.
The government obviously thought it was untrue also as the criminal indictments cited direct quotes from Corcoran’s letter to support the prosecution’s Obstruction of Justice charges.
When Prosecutor Kris McLean showed Corcoran copies of the studies Grace had done that confirmed the hazard, the company spokesman said he had never seen them before.

Well, I don’t know whether McLean was happy with the answer, but it looks like Corcoran may be batting .1000 in the straight-shooter department. Or maybe not.

Corcoran offered another example of his candor when Grace lawyer David Bernick was questioning him and mentioned the head of EPA’s emergency response team and Grace’s arch villain Paul Peronard.

Not only did Corcoran admit that he knew Peronard but that he’d first meet with the EPA emergency response expert on a cleanup in Georgia years earlier when the Grace executive represented another company. Several Grace lawyers winced when Corcoran volunteered that they’d gotten along and the Peronard had done a good job.

It was good finally seeing the official voice on the phone and email in person. But like others in the courtroom, I too am puzzled why Mr. Corcoran wasn’t named in the indictments.

Speaking of dissembling, the final witness of the day, was magnificent in his performance.

Dr. Suresh Moolgavkar, a Seattle epidemiologist and bio-statistician, earned his money from Grace in attempting to discredit the work of Drs. Aubrey Miller, Alan Whitehouse and Jim Lockey. The trio of government witnesses all have hands-on experience   in Libby and with its people. Grace’s witness doesn’t.

Moolgavkar, who has been a paid expert witness for   Bernick and Grace for years, said he had only recalculated the work of Lockey and other scientists and concluded: “There is . . . no evidence of an increased risk at Libby from environmental exposure,” he said.

His statement kind of makes you wonder about the dozens of people in Libby’s cemetery and hospitals with asbestos related disease who never worked at the mine or lived with miners. Or about the almost 2,000 who showed some level of lung impairments when the government tested 10,000 or so townsfolk from Libby and nearby Lincoln County years ago.

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