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Though the company's vermiculite mine closed in 1990, W. R. Grace has maintained a presence in Libby. Last year, the company helped fund a community health clinic to the tune of $260,000 a year, and company officials maintain they've done what they could as the environmental asbestos issues surfaced. Still, many allege that Grace has abandoned the community, and left it to find its own way out of the toxic mess the mining operation left behind.
"It's not like I haven't been here," says Alan Stringer, W. R. Grace's representative in Libby. "I lived here for 15 years, then left in '94 and have been back here since December of '99. I go to all of these meetings, and it's frustrating for me when we don't get to comment. People around here know who I am, they know where to find me."
Stringer maintains that Grace has done all it could to work together with government officials and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"We have cooperated with the EPA, but they have basically said, 'We don't want you involved in this, unless it is to provide information,' " says Stringer. "I have no argument with the way they have run this program -- they have done it quite professionally. I think they did a good job."
But, he adds, people forget they are only looking at a preliminary report about the health study.
"I think, before we draw any conclusions, we need to wait for the final report to come out," says Stringer. "Yes, it is an alarming number, but it's way too early to draw conclusions." The preliminary report by the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found 30 percent of the 1,078 people reviewed showed lung damage -- of that 30 percent, 19 percent is believed to be asbestos related. The report states the final results of analyzing and testing all the 6,144 people in line to be screened may be very different from the preliminary findings.
And Stringer says it's definitely much too early to draw any conclusions as to the health risks involving people who haven't worked at the plant or the mine, or had relatives who did so.
"I lived here with my family, and I'll say as I have always said, that there is no elevated risk for the general population living in this town."
Many wonder if the growing pile of lawsuits being filed against Grace will force the company to declare bankruptcy.
"When we announced our last quarterly earnings, it was also announced that our asbestos liability until today is $1.1 billion. It's very likely that we may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection," says Stringer. "With all the other companies going out of business [because of asbestos liability], it adds a lot of pressure to the ones that are still around. But we are still an above $1 billion company, and you have insurance and stuff, so I think we'll make it through this."
He maintains that Grace knew about the asbestos issue, as he puts it, back when the company purchased the mine and the mill from the Zonolite Company in '63.
"Shortly thereafter, we began identifying procedures by which to protect our employees, and we also began the design of a totally wet process," says Stringer. "That wasn't implemented until '73 -- you just don't build those over night."
Does he think Grace is unfairly stuck with the blame for an environmental nightmare?
"Well, no. It's an unfortunate situation," says Stringer. "Would we all like to have known what we know today 30 years ago? Yes, but we are not pointing fingers at anybody."