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No, no, our asbestos is the safe kind

Friday, June 8, 2007

Over two decades, W.R. Grace & Co. slowly killed hundreds of workers at its Libby, Mont. asbestos mine. It's one of the most notorious cases in the annals of environmental crime – but Grace may escape punishment through loopholes opened by the same justice system that's trying to convict the company.

In 1969, Peter Grace, president of the company, received an internal memo directly stating that asbestos "is definitely a health hazard," but waited 21 years to close the mine. Hundreds of former workers or their family members have died of asbestos-related disease, and 1,300 are sick today.

Yet while common sense convicts Grace the law may not. The Justice Department's attempt to try Grace and 7 of its executives fizzled last year, because controversial lower court decisions forbid the most damning evidence from being presented. Peer-reviewed government studies? Not to be considered by a jury. Grace’s never-released internal study revealing a third of its workers had abnormal chest X-rays? Not admissible. The lower court also threw out the most serious charges of "knowing endangerment." (Guess the judge forgot about the memo.) And most outrageous to Libby residents, the lower court swallowed Grace's claim that the type of asbestos fibers in the ore from the mine are not regulated under the Clean Air Act.

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