Mining company charged with exposing US town to asbestos

A CAMPAIGN by residents of a tiny town in north-western Montana to strike back at an international mining conglomerate that allegedly exposed them to deadly asbestos contaminants finally brought hope this week. Federal officials have announced serial criminal charges against the firm and some of its executives.

The company, WR Grace and Co, is accused in a federal indictment of deliberately concealing from customers, employees and residents the health hazards posed by a vermiculite mine near the town of Libby, close to the Canadian border, which it operated from 1963 until 1990.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believe hundreds of miners and their family members, as well as other townspeople, died as a result of exposure to the vermiculate ore that was tainted with asbestos. Over the 30 years, another 1,200 people became ill with diseases including asbestosis and lung cancer.

"This is one of the most significant criminal indictments for environmental crime in our history," said Lori Hanson, in charge of the EPA's environmental crime section in Denver. The indictment says that Grace donated some of the asbestos-laced material to the town to build an athletic track and the base of a public ice rink.

The defendants at the expected trial will be the corporation of Grace and seven of its current and former senior executives. The company could face a fine of up to $280m (pounds 190m); some of the executives, if found guilty, could face prison terms of between 50 and 70 years.

"This wasn't something that happened to us. This was something that was done to us," said Les Skramstad, 68, a former miner who was diagnosed with the lung disease asbestosis nine years ago. "They should have to pay. They will never have to pay like we did, because it won't cost them their lives.'"

Grace, which makes building supplies and has operations in 40 countries around the world, issued a statement countering the allegations. "We are surprised by the government's methods and disappointed by its determination to bring these allegations," it said. "We look forward to setting the record straight in a court of law."

According to the indictment, officials at Grace were aware of the potential hazards of the materials being extracted from the mine as early as 1976 but deliberately worked to conceal the concerns. It was only after a west coast newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, published a series of investigative articles on Libby and its mine at the end of 1999 that the government began its own inquiry.

Mr Skramstad said he had worked in the mine for only two and a half years but had contracted asbestosis, as had his wife and two of their children. Battling for breath, he said: "I've waited a long time for this. "It's a great day to be alive."

Grace, based in Maryland, is no stranger to environmental litigation. In the late Eighties it paid $8m to families in Woburn, Massachusetts, to settle claims that pollutants from one of its plants caused the deaths of five local children from leukaemia. That case was dramatised in the Hollywood film, A Civil Action. In 2001, the firm sought bankruptcy protection because of the large number of asbestos-related lawsuits against it.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?