Read the harrowing tale of a team of investigators who had to venture into the heart of an asbestos contaminated zone to test for the dangerous substance.
“An air below” shows how dangerous this mineral actually is.
Read all about it below.
Three days after New year’s day 2000, having survived all the end-of-the-world predictions for the millennium, Peronard, Weis and Miller returned to Libby ready to go to war. Unfortunately, their weapons- the regulations that control everything they do-were decades old.
During the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, in fits and starts, individual government investigators or small bands of scientist would attempt to prod their respective agencies into closing a loophole, researching a new technique or modifying an outdated regulation, but if the toxin at the heart of any of these attempts was asbestos, chances were overwhelming that nothing meaningful would happen. The status quo was good enough.
The Libby team was shackled to the official decision that there are only six types of asbestos and that only long fibers-greater than five microns-were dangerous enough to sicken and kill. (A micron, or micrometer, is 1/25,000th of an inch. A human hair is 100 microns wide.) The government had bought off on industry’s belief that the aspect ratio of the fiber, the relationship between its length and width, had to fall into narrowly defined ranges to be dangerous, and that broken pieces of asbestos called cleavage fragments weren’t harmful, regardless of the toxicity of the asbestos they broke away from. The federal regulations also said that there really was no need to worry about any material that had less than 1 percent asbestos.
The asbestos industry was persistent in fighting any restriction the government felt was needed. In 1976, for example, while OSHA and NIOSH were pushing for asbestos exposure levels to be set at the lowest detectable levels, Grace representatives argued that tremolite, the form of asbestos that contaminates the Libby ore, wasn’t a “commercial asbestos form” and therefore should be treated differently than other types of asbestos in the workplace.
In a letter to OSHA, Grace argued that “disruption of Grace’s vermiculite business, which employs 1,300 people at locations in over 20 states, with an annual payroll of approximately $19 million, also would affect jobs in areas such as the construction industry where vermiculite products are used.”
Now 25 years later, Peronard and his team faced the outcome of Grace’s successful lobbying. They had to confront rules that also established the analytical methods that could be used in hunting the elusive asbestos fiber. When trying to find asbestos in solid samples like soil, dust and insulation, nearly all asbestos laboratories use polarized-light-microscopy, or PLM, which magnifies the fiber about 400 times. Adequate if you’re looking fore chrysotile, which was usually added in large amounts 50 percent or more-to most products in which it was used. Tremolite, which wasn’t intentionally added, but was a contaminant of vermiculite and other minerals, was usually found in much smaller amounts.
“Using PLM like the regulations demand is like trying to coun tcars on a road from 30,000 feet up. You can see the big trucks, but not the cars.” Weis explained. “Where is the tremolite?”
And with the decades-old rules trying their hands, the investigators were having a hard time even finding the trucks.
Contractors for the EPA, bundled against the piercing Montana cold with fleece vests and heavy flannel shirts under their white Tyvek hazmat suits, collected more than 700 samples of soil and dust from all over Libby and the former Grace property, often having to chip through frozen dirt and rock to get enough material to analyze.
Peronard told the labs to work overtime. He needed to know how much danger the people of the town still faced. The demand for immediate answers came from the townsfolk, real-estate sellers and politicians. ports of the PLM analysis began trickling in, and then gushed.
What the hell is happening here?” Peronard asked his sidekicks as the trio pored over the piles of lab reports. “All we’re getting are ‘trace’ amounts and a lot of ‘non-detects’.”
Some of the places where the samples were collected were covered with vermiculite ore and the expanded Zonolite, and they were still coming up clean. More samples were collected and were sent to a different lab. The results were the same. EPA’s hotshot National Emergency Response Team flew in from New Jersey, took samples from the same waste piles the contractors had explored and sent them to what they considered “the best laboratories on the East Coast.” The results were the same. Nothing found. Days turned into weeks, and Peronard was climbing the walls as he fought to fend off demands from headquarters the results of the testing.
Weis made several quick trips between Libby and the U.S. Geological Survey offices in Denver.
“They have the best mineralogists in the world and some of the hottest new analytical tools there are,” Weis told Peronard. “Maybe they can help.”
“Check it out,” the boss said.
As would become his habit, Peronard was bluntly frank with the people of Libby. Right up front, he told them that almost all the government’s asbestos regulations dealt with occupational exposure or levels in a school where old asbestos is being removed.
“There is nothing, absolutely nothing that can help us evaluate the risk to the baby in Libby crawling on the kitchen floor in asbestos tracked in from the yard or from the Zonolite insulation that has fallen through cracks in the ceiling. We’re doing the best we can, with what we’ve been given to use.” He said at a public meeting in late January.
Weis added: “The risk models EPA uses are based on chrysotile and occupational exposure. Here in Libby we’re dealing with tremolite and people exposed in their home, in the park, the schoolyards, their driveways. Most kids used to light a kitchen match, hold it under a piece of vermiculite ore andwatch it pop off.
“How do you evaluate the risk from that?”
With the town’s realization that EPA was serious about the cleanup came a thousand questions. Knowing this, the team helped set up an advisory panel to help keep Libby people informed. Wendy Thomi explained that the agency would fund a facilitator for the group, and she agreed to help make it happen.
Mayor Tony Berget had seen his control of the Libby situation evaporated
The Resurgence of Litigation and Attempted Legislative Retrenchment Efforts
Aside from the brief flurry of activity around the Chapter II trusts, the congressional politics of asbestos injury compensation quieted down after the mid-1980s. Member of Congress seemed disposed to wait and see if the asbestos crisis would pass. A prominent Washington lawyer and lobbyist explained, “You stop getting bills around 1986…[because] everyone thought that this was really a solved problem. The [insurance] coverage issues were largely resolved; the people were getting into agreements that processed them more or less administratively,” Major reform proposals aimed specifically replacing asbestos litigation with administrative alternatives dropped off during this period.
Yet some members of Congress were clearly watching and ready to in convene to correct deficiencies they observed in the tort process. In 1982, a leading proponent of asbestos reform in congress, representative George miller(D-CA), maintained that a federal asbestos-injury compensation fund was necessary because the existing system “failed to meet the needs of occupational disease victims.” The following year, Representative Miller convened a special hearing on the effect of bankruptcy cases and private settlements arguing that the “testimony we will hear this morning will further establish the need to replace years of failure with a compensation system that can meet the needs of the disabled asbestos workers.” These arguments were echoed outside the Congress.
The case for congressional action seemed to grow stronger as the early efforts to provide alternatives to tort began to falter in the 1980s and 1990s.
The continuing drumbeat of large verdicts in some jurisdictions, the rejection of mandatory class actions as a comprehensive settlement tool by the Supreme Court, the collapse of major private settlements, the growing costs associated with using bankruptcy as a means to manage asbestos litigation liability, and increasing tightening of credit for any business with any hint of asbestos liability risk all seemed to invite congressional reform. Byt the late 1990s, the Supreme Court was openly calling for legislation(eg., Amchem Products v. Windsor; Ortiz v. Fibreboard: and Norfolk & Western Railway Co v. Ayers). In Ortizm The court declared “the elephantine mass of asbestos