andrew schneider investigates

May 21, 2009

Government is sending money to care for asbestos victims in Libby. Will W.R. Grace keep picking up medical bills as it promised?

People in Libby, Mont. are through licking their wounds and are working to put the acquittal earlier this month of W.R. Grace and its executives behind them.

But many say they live in fear that the innocent verdict offered up by the jury will give the former owner of the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine the chutzpa to end the insurance coverage they’ve promised to provide to the hundreds of miners and townsfolk sickened by the lethal fibers the corporation pulled out of the ground.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus today passed some good news on to the tiny town in the state’s northwest corner. He says he got the Department of Health and Human Services to free up $6 million to provide health care for people with asbestos-related illness.

“It’s really great news, and we can use some of that up here,” said Dr. Brad Black, who runs the Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases clinic in town.

Dr. Brad Black. (c) Photo a. schneider

Dr. Brad Black. (c) Photo a. schneider

“Everyone was scared to death that Grace would stop paying the little it does pay of the medical expenses of the people here,” Black told me today.

With the high cost of medication, oxygen and hospitalization, the $6 million won’t go very far to provide screenings and health care services to the hundreds of people battling asbestos-related illnesses.

However, the senator says that major help may be on the way as he believes he can get a Public Health Emergency declared for Libby.

Battles had been fought throughout the Bush Administration, by OMB and EPA for years over those three little words.

Paul Peronard, Chris Weis and Aubrey Miller – the trio of EPA emergency response and public health specialists who were the first to arrive in Libby a decade ago –  had their careers threatened repeatedly because they saw the need to declare the emergency.

They fought for the designation because it would permit EPA to do the complex cleanup the unique tremolite asbestos demanded, the town needed and would make the government responsible for ensuring the delivery of adequate health care.

The Bush Administration fought the effort because it was trying to force an industry-sponsored asbestos litigation reform act through Congress and wanted no attention brought to the devastation asbestos could impart.

The Democratic lawmaker lambasted the decision to not declare a public health emergency at the time, calling it an “outrage.”

Baucus said a public health emergency would authorize cleanup work in homes and other structures as well as require the federal government to provide screenings and health care for Libby residents with asbestos-related disease.

The public health emergency would be declared by the Environmental Protection Administration.

“I’ve talked with the head of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius and the head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, and they both know how important it is to help the folks in Libby,” Baucus said

“We all have been working for months together to figure out how to best help folks affected by this tragedy.”

Baucus holds senior positions on oversight committees for both HHS and EPA.

He described his action as a step to bring justice to folks in Libby “who were poisoned at the hands of Grace.

“We expect this Administration to make decisions based on sound science and to right the sins of the last Administration.”

May 8, 2009

Jury acquits W.R. Grace of all criminal charges. Many wonder how it happened.

Filed under: Asbestos,Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace — Andrew Schneider @ 16:05

A juror wept as a clerk stood before Judge Donald Molloy’s bench and reported that W.R. Grace and Co. and three of its former executives were not guilty of charges brought by the government in the nation’s largest environmental crime trial in history.

I’d love to know why she was crying. She wasn’t alone.

The trial took ten weeks, and the clerk’s reading of the verdicts of the jury’s six men and six women was done in just 3 ½-minutes.

Saying it was the longest trial he’d ever been involved in, Molloy dismissed the jurors , who deliberated for less than two days,  and said: “It is I think truly a reflection of how we are supposed to govern ourselves. Ultimately it is the people of the community who have to make a decision.”

The verdict, joyful to some and painful to many, was no surprise. Most of the observers in the court gallery expected, at the most, a guilty verdict on only one of the eight counts, such as obstruction of justice.

The heavy charges of conspiracy and knowing endangerment that carried long prison sentences were taken out of play early as Molloy imposed repeated restrictions and limitations on what evidence and witnesses the prosecution could use.

“It’s unfortunate that so much evidence was withheld from the jury by the district court’s evidentiary rulings, including some of the most compelling internal memos written by W.R. Grace officials about the harmful effects of their mining operations,” said David Uhlmann, who led the U.S. Justice Department’s environmental crime section when the Montana U.S. Attorney’s office sought to bring the charges in this trial.

Uhlmann, who is now professor and director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the University of Michigan Law School, added: “Many questions now linger about what would have happened if the trial had been conducted in a manner that was fair to everyone involved. “

Editorial cartoon by Stephen Templeton The Flathead Beacon

Editorial cartoon by Stephen Templeton The Flathead Beacon

Speculation is rampant on why the government lost today.

We can talk about the prosecution being heavily outnumbered.

It had fewer than a dozen lawyers, investigators and support personnel. Grace fielded 50 or more and almost daily swamped the court with motions and briefs cranked out by their paralegals and junior lawyers. The prosecution had most of its team working to midnight and beyond almost every night just to respond to the avalanche of paper.

We can weigh the impact of Molloy sitting moot day after day while Grace’s superstar lawyer David Bernick hammered away with bogus, inflammatory accusations of misconduct by members of the prosecution team.

We can try to compare the effectiveness of Bernick’s fiery, dramatic, comedic performances as he trashed witnesses and prosecution alike to the low key, soft spoken questioning of lead Prosecutor Kris McLean.

For weeks, lawyers who had watched McLean in earlier trials said his “solid delivery” would win the day. Two Montana-based lawyers working for Grace as local counsels, told me repeatedly that a Montana jury would never be impressed with Bernick’s antics and “scrawling over whiteboards larger than himself.”

I’m sure it was only a coincidence the jury foreman was the same man who almost always laughed at Bernick’s attempts at humor.

My best guess for the jury’s verdicts was the blatant clues of disdain that Molloy heaped upon McLean and his case day after day.

Uhlmann said, “It’s also hard to know how much the jury was influenced by the district court’s hostility to the government’s case.

”It always was going to be a difficult case, and the way the trial was conducted made it all the more difficult.”

The top environmental crime lawyer said it was not impossible for the government to win.

“Jurors often can see through the smoke screen of judicial hostility and defense counsel’s antics, but it is hard to fault the jury in this case. On the record before them, and with everything else going on in the courtroom, they did the best they could,” he explained.

From the very start, Molloy was making his mark on the prosecution’s effort. When U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer tried to announce the indictments four years ago, Molloy would not allow him to do it in front of the federal building. Mercer, who is openly hated by Molloy, had to hold his press conference on the steps of the county courthouse.

Of course, the reason for the not guilty verdicts may just be that W.R. Grace was totally innocent of all aspects of the poisoning of Libby and its people.

Wall Street thinks so. Shares of the company rose more than 30 percent on the news of the acquittal.

“We at Grace are gratified by today’s verdict,” said company president Fred Festa. “We always believed that Grace and its former executives had acted properly and that a jury would come to the same conclusion when confronted with the evidence.”

Gayla Benefield, a longtime activist in the fight against Grace said, “They’ve gotten away with murder again, and that’s just the way it will always be.

“I think of my family and friends, dozens of them, who died because of exposure to asbestos from Grace’s operation and I really pray for the day that someone, anyone, can tell me why they are not guilty,” she told me this afternoon.

I’m going to give everyone a couple of weeks to cool down and then I’ll try to talk to the jurors, witnesses and lawyers on both sides to see if I can find out what really happened.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said, “Today’s disappointing verdict is a reminder of the urgent need to ban asbestos in America. The families of Libby, Montana have suffered enough, and my thoughts are with them today.”

For more than seven years, Murray, a Washington State Democrat, has fought to get a complete ban of the deadly fibers.

“Asbestos destroys lives, and the tragedy at Libby has shown that it can devastate entire communities. We must move forward to protect America’s workers and families once and for all,” said Murray.

Uhlmann cautions that no one should lose sight of the fact that it was a tremendous accomplishment to investigate and prosecute Grace.

“While the outcome is disappointing, the only tragedy in this case is what happened to the town of Libby, Montana, “he said.

May 6, 2009

URGENT: After ten hours of almost non-stop closing arguments, the W.R. Grace criminal case has gone to the jury.

Filed under: Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace — Andrew Schneider @ 16:35

Molloy’s instructions to Grace jury had some weird omissions.

Filed under: Asbestos,Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace — Andrew Schneider @ 13:20

It took an hour for Judge Donald Molloy to give the jury its instructions.

Most sounded like a straight lecture on the eight criminal charges in the indictment, and he asked both the defense and prosecution to object or accept each of the 50-plus instructions. Grace’s side objected to many of them to reserve a right of appeal. The government didn’t like a handful, but Molloy said the language stood as written.

Since the judge barred the public and press from point-by-point debate with the lawyers last night we may never know what arguments were made.

There were one or two surprises in the judge’s order to the jurors. He told them that they should be aware that EPA headquarters did not give Grace lawyers email from John Malone, a headquarters’ pollution policy worker who repeatedly denounced the actions of Paul Peronard and his emergency response team.

Several of Malone’s emails and statements had been shown to the jury yesterday, and the defense treated them as the Holy Grail in proving that everything EPA had done was wrong and not based on science.

What the jury will not be told was that Malone retired years ago, and the agency’s computer system routinely purges emails that old. Nor will they learn that Malone’s science background was minimal compared with scores of others in his department who supported the Libby cleanup.

Nevertheless, Molloy made it sound like the unavailable email was concealed intentionally to the detriment of two of the three remaining defendants — Jack Wolter and Robert Bettacchi.

The judge also told the jury to ignore comments made by prosecution witness Dr. Alan Whitehouse when he predicted that illnesses would continue to surface. The jurors were also told to not consider Whitehouse’s statements on the source of the asbestos-related disease that has killed and sickened hundreds of his patients.

Whitehouse has and continues to diagnose and treat. When the mine was still open Grace itself sent miners to Whitehouse.

So you figure out why the opinions on the source of the disease from this highly experienced pulmonologist should be something the judge wanted kept from jurors trying to decide guilt or innocence.

May 5, 2009

Testimony in W.R. Grace trial ends as defense fails again to prove that EPA’s top emergency response wizard was a cowboy who made bad decisions.

Cutting two expert witnesses they had earlier said were vital to their case, the defense in the W.R. Grace criminal trial rested today at 3:10 p.m. and judge Donald Molloy quickly headed to chambers with the lead lawyers to discuss the upcoming public debate over the final instructions to the jury.

The last witness in the 10-week-long ordeal went to one who deserved the honor of having the last word– Paul Peronard. He started and headed the EPA’s emergency response in Libby and had the integrity to push for the criminal investigation that led to this trial. He also started the trial as the prosecution’s lead-off expert.
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What was bizarre today was that Peronard was called by the defense. The prosecution had wanted to call him back to the stand to address a few points raised last week by Grace’s top spokesman, William Corcoran.  Grace’s top lawyer, David Bernick, first opposed the idea, then made it his own.

At one point Tuesday,  Bernick was rubbing his hands together in anticipation.  He was going to take another shot at discrediting Peronard, showing him to be a cowboy who was scorned by his EPA bosses in Washington.

Bernick first tried to get Peronard to admit that he thought of himself as a “king,” a statement attributed to him during earlier testimony.

Peronard had been asked, cajoled and pressured – nicely and often — to return to Libby after his initial stint there as on-scene coordinator to try to sort out the disputes and non-stop peeing matches over the cleanup of homes and property that had erupted after his departure.

Not one to blow his own horn, all Peronard would tell Bernick was that he wanted to ensure that he would have enough authority to get the job done.

Bernick let it drop and went on to the issue he thought would blow the on-scene coordinator out of the water.

Waving them like a flag, Bernick held up copies of email from John Malone, a member of EPA’s headquarters’ staff,  criticizing the actions and recommendations of Peronard and his teammates, Dr. Aubrey Miller and toxicologist Chris Weis.

Malone didn’t like the Libby team  and did not have much good to say about EPA Region 8 in Denver, where the Libby operation came from. He repeatedly denounced plans to remove dangerous Zonolite Attic Insulation from Libby homes and charged that Miller and Weis were using bogus science.

Bernick was almost lustful as he tried to get Peronard to admit that Malone’s e-mails were proof that headquarters opposed the team’s plans.
Not so, Peronard said again and again as Bernick repeated the same question.  Malone, Peronard said, did not speak for headquarters

What Peronard did not explain (probably because it’s not his style) were the reasons underlying Malone’s efforts to stifle the Libby operation. Peronard and his colleagues knew that Malone had headed the crucial, and embarrassing, 1982 and 1985 EPA studies of the tainted vermiculite from Libby. Rather than take actions to order Grace to stop exposing it workers, their family members and the town to lethal levels of asbestos, Malone stuck the reports on a shelf.

No one knows if lives could have been saved if Malone had paid attention to the very real dangers clearly flagged in the studies he babysat.

Peronard also didn’t tell the jury that at the same time that Malone was writing e-mails denouncing his team, EPA’s administrator was awarding Miller, Weis and Peronard for their outstanding work.

Peronard was permitted to leave and the judge told the jury: “I believe you have heard all the testimony you’re going to hear in this case.”

Smiles lit up the faces in the jury box.

W.R Grace defense lawyer says plagiarism proves prosecution witness has lied.

The last day of testimony in the W.R. Grace criminal trial began with the defense calling a former Libby city attorney and an ex-Grace accountant. Both were quickly questioned and dismissed.

But drama surfaced soon after Defense Attorney Thomas Frongillo began questioning Melvin Parker, the owner of the nursery he built on the site of the former Grace screening plant at the base of the road to the mine.

Frongillo, who represents former Grace Senior VP Robert Bettacchi, said his intent was to show that Parker “flat out lied” when he said he didn’t know that the mine was contaminated with asbestos that was harmful to humans.

This was a path that other lawyers had tried to go down with little or no success.

Frongillo, who served 10 years as a assistant United States attorney in the dog-eat-dog legal swamp of Boston, pressed Parker hard about when he learned about the asbestos.

The nurseryman said it was in the PI series on Libby in November 1999.

“Not so, Frongillo said, and he showed the jury 1993 report from Patrick Plantenberg, a Montana State official who worked on the mine reclamation. The lawyer also read a paragraph from a lengthy report that specifically outline the risks from asbestos.

Plantenberg said he had spoken to Parker in Sept. 1993 and sent him a copy.

Parker insisted he had never received the document.

Frongillo, who had kept his cool over the past 10 weeks was getting hot and Parker was  unbending and loud in his denials.  Sparks were flying.

The defense lawyer said he knows that Parker received it because he had plagiarized the language describing the asbestos danger and used it in a management plan he had submitted to Grace when Parker and his wife wanted to buy the old mine.

The words were almost identical but Parker vociferously and repeatedly denied that he lied.

Frongillo slowly shook his head and returned to his seat.

May 4, 2009

Truth be damned. Some watchers of the W.R. Grace criminal trial say two little words from defense lawyer “special relationship” could sway the jury’s verdict.

There is a slight lingering stench in the Missoula courtroom where the criminal trial of W.R. Grace is two days from going to the jury.

Many blame it on the odorous performance of Grace’s star lawyer David Bernick and his repeated assertions that a Robert Marsden, an EPA criminal investigator had a “special relationship” with discredited witness Robert Locke.

The old photo of Grace's top legal gun David Bernick came from his firm's website.

The old photo of Grace's top legal gun David Bernick came from his firm's website.

With a theatrical delivery, feigned disgust, that a Shakespearian player would covet, Bernick read from innocuous emails between the agent and the witness as if they were confessions of drug dealings, or payoffs, or selling little children or possessing WMDs.

Few dispute that the prosecution screwed up its obligation under law to get information and documents on Locke — a former Grace official and crucial witness — promptly to the defense, and they’ve been punished for it. But that has nothing to do with the deceptive picture Bernick has painted for the jury on the spurious “special relationship.”

I shared some examples of language from some the emails that the enormously successful corporate lawyer used as the basis of his accusations with  seven lawyers or law professors and past or current federal investigators.

All concluded that the electronic correspondence indicated that Marsden’s actions were appropriate, completely professional and just the way investigators routinely work to maintain contact with a witness. There was nothing “special” about it.

Some legal observers say it won’t matter in the end and that the jury will see through Bernick’s ploy.

Maybe.

I have greater concerns. While I know that the sometimes distasteful Bernick is considered by the business press to be among the best there is in defending corporations like Grace, tobacco companies and makers of breast implants, I am amazed that an experienced jurist like Judge Donald Molloy didn‘t yell foul  at the “special relationship” ploy.

His honor has referred to the phrase from the bench — both verbally, and I’m told, in writing. Some people who say they have known or appeared before the judge for ten or more years say that with Molloy’s knowledge of how investigators function, they can’t believe that the judge permitted Bernick’s charade.

Molloy repeatedly insists that all of his rulings and action are based on law and not something he cobbles up behind the closed doors of his chamber.

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.

uncivil-action1

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.

May 1, 2009

The Grace trial is almost over, but Judge Donald Molloy can change the outcome even after the jury decides.

Filed under: Asbestos,Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace — Andrew Schneider @ 14:13

Two workdays and counting until the jury in the W.R. Grace criminal case is presented closing argument and then huddles to render its justice.
The past week was a kaleidoscope of colors and emotions as the defense rushed to wrap up its arguments of innocence to the jury.
Charges were dropped against two Grace executives because the restrictions placed on the prosecution left they unable to get a conviction “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  But for a few fleeting moments the battle was overlooked as human emotion took over – tears, hugs for those left behind and even handshakes for those who indicted them in the first place.
Judge Donald Molloy was far more tempered and professional in his verbal handling of the prosecution, which may have had everything or nothing to do with much stronger and better-organized performances by Asst. U.S. Attorneys’ Kris McLean and Kevin Cassidy.

uncivil-action1
Molloy got a bit feisty when the prosecution made references to having to conduct the trial under severe limitation on what can be presented to the jury.
“I’m not making this up. I don’t go back in my chambers and say, ‘Gee, how can I screw this thing up?’ I’m trying to follow the law,” the self-described Irishman fired back.
He also took umbrage at media reports that he was retaliating against the prosecution for earlier actions by the Montana U.S. Attorney’s office.
And there was one point during a break on Thursday where Molloy — with all the patience and geniality we expect in our storybook judges — had a gentle five-minute or so scholarly exchange on a point of law with Cassidy. Not snarky at all.  I would like to have seen more of that side of his honor. I understand in other trials it was the norm.
But back to reality, the fact that Molloy has let the trial run its course is a big deal and surprising to many on both sides of the case. His announcement on Monday that he would not do as the defense asked and dismiss the case for prosecutorial misconduct, was invigorating to the government.
Of course no one knows what the jury will do, especially a Montana jury and it would be great to think that the outcome of this case will fall those men and women who suffered so long in the jury box. But remember, they can only do what the judge permits in his extremely detailed instructions to them.
He will tell the jury precisely what evidence and testimony they may or may not consider and which of the multiple criminal counts Molloy believes are in still in play. This alone can determine the outcome.
Molloy has repeatedly said he did not believe the government had come close to proving the guilt of the accused, especially on the most serious charges — conspiracy to defraud the government, knowing endangerment and obstruction.
For those of you who have lost your scorecard, remember, there remains in play one more motion to acquit, this from the defense is based on the merits of the case. Molloy has yet to rule on this.
This may come as a shocker to you, but even after the jury does its sworn duty, Molloy has a legal right to intervene further.
Unfortunately, my concerns about the fairness of this trial and the judge’s action are no secret, so let me share with you what a more impartial and clearly learned source — University of Montana law Prof. Andrew King-Ries — wrote yesterday.
He cites Rule 29(b), which allows a judge to let a case go to the jury for a decision and then permits the same judge to dismiss the case in the event the jury returns a verdict against the defendants.
“While (Molloy) stated that he had not made up his mind on the issue, it was his ‘inclination’ to let the jury make a decision and reserve his ruling on acquittal until after the verdict,” the professor wrote.

“In other words,” King-Ries added, “if the jury convicts, (Molloy) would consider whether to overturn the convictions of the defendants.  If the jury acquits, then (the judge) would not have to make a ruling on the defendants’ motions for acquittal.”
King-Ries and journalism Prof, Nadia White have had teams of both law and journalism students covering the trial non-stop, filling the air with blogs and Twitters, or Tweets, or whatever they’re called.
(In a totally unrelated note, I found it fascinating that, in the name of transparency, Molloy has permitted the real time blogging and other cyber transmissions from his court. Yesterday, a judge hearing a major bankruptcy case one floor below ordered the score or more of lawyers in attendance to immediately to stop sending tweets.)

April 29, 2009

An organization for government environmental workers say a report from EPA’s IG criticizes the agency’s cleanup of asbestos in Libby.

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,W.R. Grace — Andrew Schneider @ 11:03

It’s a bit bizarre to me to be sitting in the back row of a Montana courtroom listening to another day of testimony in the criminal trial of W.R. Grace, while at the same time writing about reported cleanup problems of the lethal mess the same company made in the town of Libby.

Just to keep people (including me) from becoming confused, let me stress that this has nothing to do with the charges against Grace.

Nevertheless, here’s what Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility had to say today about the investigation in 2006 by EPA’s inspector general’s office.

The IG said epa-logoit found no need for criminal action after its review of the cleanup, but PEER, a union-like organization that sued to get a report on investigation made public, said there were “critical deficiencies” in the agency’s actions.

The suit prompted the release yesterday of the of a 2006 investigation by IG Special Agent Cory Rumple.

Rumple was looking into allegations of public health concerns about the methods employed by EPA to remove asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from homes within Libby.

Accord to PEER, problems found by Rumple included:

·      A thorough “disconnect between scientists and the agency” over how to conduct the clean-up; distribution of “exceptionally deceiving” public health information to Libby residents and fighting within the EPA that led to “dysfunctional decisions and resignations of key specialists.

Because of the ongoing Grace trial, none of the EPA people that I called for comment who were involved in the cleanup were permitted to talk, though some were eager.

PEER Executive Jeff Ruch says the IG report “raises more questions than it answers, including why it was hidden from the public.”

Rumple’s clear conclusion in his report that the Libby problems did not constitute criminal violations, the IG nevertheless launched a 21-month-long criminal investigation which resulted in the Justice Department declining to bring any charges.

“As a result of the Inspector General pursuing a fruitless criminal inquiry, today we still do not have a clear idea of whether the Libby clean-up is protective of the public,” Ruch added.

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