In a web of troubling chronologies surrounding W.R. Grace’s alleged attempt to conceal deadly asbestos contamination in Libby, few rival the company’s donation of mine tailings to fill school tracks in the 1970s. A company study, presented during a Jan. 21 hearing to filter evidence in the upcoming criminal trial, shows W.R. Grace conducting asbestos release tests on the tracks as early as 1981.
Testimony by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicologist Christopher Weis at the hearing revealed W.R. Grace allegedly fitted a runner with a sensor that counted the fibers stirred into the air while he jogged laps. Weis interpreted the test results as showing “very high concentrations” of tremolite fibers in the immediate atmosphere. The EPA calls this form of testing “activity-based sampling”—something scientists hope will prove Libby tremolite to be far more toxic than garden-variety asbestos.
If the account is authentic, the study suggests Grace executives had the same premonition almost 20 years before Superfund cleanup began in Libby.
Due to a judicial gag order on potential expert witnesses in the case, Weis declined to comment in this report. The study and Weis’ testimony are among a large body of evidence—literally millions of pages—the prosecution hopes will establish that Grace executives knew of the health hazards of their operations and hid those facts from the U.S. government.
According to school district officials, both tracks were built on top of mine tailings via the same public works project that erected the Libby Dam. The submitted study took place in 1981, after which Grace repaved the track to seal the contamination.
Libby superintendent Kirby Maki says he reported visible vermiculite flakes at the track in 2001, and successfully lobbied the EPA to seal the ground again. “The potential of exposure was high in my mind,” Maki says.
W.R. Grace attorneys did not return phone calls, but challenge in court documents both the scope and duration of contamination at the high school and middle school.