Friday, July 21, 2006
Bill Childs is on vacation this week. Filling in for him is author Andrea Peacock, telling the story of the W.R. Grace corporation’s tragic legacy in the small town of Libby, Montana. This is part six of seven.
It’s amazing, in retrospect, that W.R. Grace was able to keep secret the asbestos contamination of their vermiculite mine in Libby as long as they did. A whole alphabet soup’s worth of state and federal agencies saw pieces of the puzzle: The federal Bureau of Mines, Mine Safety and Health Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the Montana Department of Health, all knew there was asbestos in Grace’s vermiculite. All either assumed the danger was controlled, or found themselves constricted by narrow mandates.
Even the Environmental Protection Agency had clues: the agency was nearly forced to take action when one of Grace’s corporate customers in Ohio came down with a rash of pulmonary diseases among its workforce. In response, the EPA planned a sweeping survey of the nation’s vermiculite industry, including a close look at the Libby mine, and was preparing to get down to business when Ronald Reagan was elected president. One of Reagan’s early acts was to appoint his friend, J. Peter Grace, to head the Grace Commission, ferreting out waste in government. The vermiculite study was, for all practical purposes, scrapped. (In a 2001 report investigating the EPA’s actions—or lack thereof—the Office of Inspector General concluded that a pitiful lack of communication was at fault for the agency’s failure to follow through.)
Make no mistake: only W.R. Grace saw the big picture. But in retrospect, the tragedy was born of abdication. No one with the power or knowledge or authority to remedy the situation took responsibility for doing so; they simply left the least powerful to fend for themselves. This is how the watchdogs took a nap. watchdogs.doc