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Supreme Court upholds ruling for asbestos cleanup bill

October 10th, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by W.R. Grace & Co. over a $54.5 million cleanup bill for an asbestos site in Libby, Montana. The company had been ordered by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the town because of contamination from its asbestos-laden vermiculite mine.

Opened in 1939, Grace acquired the mine in 1963 and operated it until 1992. The vermiculite mined in Libby was once commonly used as insulation until concerns over the health risks of the mineral caused its usage to decline. Asbestos, which is found in vermiculite, is known to cause severe health problems, including lung cancer and mesothelioma.

The EPA has called the Libby site “the most severe residential exposure to a hazardous material this country has ever seen.” Nearly two-thirds of workers who spent 10 years or more at the mine have tested positive for lung conditions, according to a memo written by a former executive at Grace.

In its appeal, the company had argued that it should not be forced to repay the EPA for the cost of the cleanup because it amounted to a “remediation” of the area, rather than an emergency cleanup. Under federal law, companies can be forced to pay the full cost of cleaning a site that presents an immediate hazard to the public; however, the costs are much more limited when long-term remediation is required.

“The situation confronting the EPA in Libby is truly extraordinary,” the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in an earlier decision. “We cannot escape the fact that people are sick and dying as a result of this continuing exposure.”

Many Libby residents say that because of the extent of the pollution from the mine, the ultimate cleanup cost would eventually be much higher than the $54.5 million bill which the FDA has levied against Grace. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001 because of the thousands of claims it is facing for causing asbestos-related illnesses, as well as the EPA bill.

Responding to the Supreme Court ruling, EPA spokeswoman Jessica Edmond praised the justices’ decision to allow them to hold Grace accountable for the damage that the Libby mine has caused to local residents. “[The EPA] is committed to making polluters pay, and today’s decision allows us to continue holding W.R. Grace responsible for cleanup of the contamination of Libby,” she says.

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