MAC: Mines and Communities

Asbestos mines: the trail of death

Published by MAC on 2004-08-17

Asbestos mines: the trail of death

The fact that the clean up of just one abandoned asbestos/vermiculite mine in the USA is news-worthy demonstrates how far behind former asbestos-producing countries are in insisting on the remediation of workings that continue to kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people. A new British television documentary ("You will know them by their trail of death", Human Eye Films, screened on ITV August 15 2004) graphically depicts old asbestos workings in South Africa from which millions of deadly blue asbestos fibres continue daily to blow onto nearby black communities. Those responsible for the mines include Anglo-De Beers, Lonmin and a company formerly owned by Stephen Schmidheiny, the "great Swiss environmentalist" who launched the World Business Council for Sustainable Development twelve years ago. According to the programme not one Rand has yet been spent by these companies in cleaning up these mines which reaped them considerable profits in the past.

Further articles below also update on the situation with regard to James Hardy in Australia and the legal situation on compensation in the USA.

Asbestos Removal in Salt Lake City to Take 10 Weeks

Environmental News Service (ENS)

August 17, 2004

Salt Lake City, Utah - Asbestos from the Vermiculite Mine in Libby, Montana is scattered across a power substation in Salt Lake City, Utah near where it was processed for 40 years, but it poses a risk of inhalation to passersby and workers in the area, and federally mandated cleanup started last week.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and PacifiCorp, formerly Utah Power and Light, have entered into a formal agreement covering the cleanup of asbestos contamination at PacifiCorp’s power substation at 333 West 100 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

PacifiCorp will ensure excavation and proper disposal of approximately 3,900 cubic yards of asbestos contaminated dust and soil from the site. Clean up began August 11 and is expected to continue for 10 weeks.

The excavations will be backfilled with clean soil and gravel, restoring the site to its preexisting condition. The work will be performed by licensed, experienced asbestos-removal contractors and all appropriate safety precautions will be taken, the EPA said.

The substation will remain operational throughout the cleanup.

Asbestos-bearing ore from the Libby mine was processed on a property right next to the substation from the early 1940s until the early 1980s, when the plant was shut down and relocated. Residues from that processing are still strewn across the substation's ground surface.

Asbestos includes a number of naturally occurring fibrous silicate minerals that are mined for their useful properties such as thermal insulation, chemical and thermal stability and high tensile strength.

Asbestos is made up of microscopic bundles of fibers that may become airborne when disturbed. These fibers may be inhaled into the lungs where they can cause significant health problems.

Asbestos, a recognized human carcinogen, is known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma, a lethal tumor of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities. Exposure to asbestos can also cause asbestosis, a disease characterized by fibrotic scarring of the lung. Soil containing asbestos may pose a risk to the health and safety of people residing in contaminated areas and in the surrounding community.

James Hardie says to continue funding for victims

Reuters News Service

August 17, 2004

Sydney - James Hardie Industries Ltd.said it would ensure ongoing compensation for victims of asbestos diseases caused by materials once sold by the Australian building products company.

A government probe into asbestos claims heard victims might need compensation of more than A$2.2 billion ($1.6 billion), well above the amount set aside by James Hardie that was expected to run out in less than three years.

In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange on Friday, James Hardie said it would ask its shareholders "to approve a scheme which would apply to all persons who might have claims from time to time against" former group companies because of asbestos-related diseases.

Australia has the world's highest level of per-capita deaths from mesothelioma, a fatal lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos, once used as a fire-retardant in wallboards and other products before the country banned it in 1984.

James Hardie "recognises the possibility that the number of legitimate claimants may ultimately exceed" earlier estimates and that "any scheme will have to accommodate that possibility and that those additional claims would have to be funded," the statement said.

About 3,000 Australians have received compensation for exposure to asbestos-tainted products. An expert report submitted to the inquiry said almost 8,000 more victims could come forward with asbestos-related cancers in the next 40 years.

The inquiry was launched to investigate the company, which now makes 79 percent of its sales in the United States, over a potential shortfall in the fund it set up for victim compensation.

Hardie established the Medical Research and Compensation Fund in 2001 with A$293 million to compensate victims linked to asbestos products made by two former Hardie subsidiaries. Eight months later, it moved its headquarters to the Netherlands, citing a better tax regime.

On Tuesday, James Hardie reported profit in the three months ended June 30 rose 13 percent to $37.1 million from the year-earlier $32.9 million.

Hardie's share price closed on Friday up 0.6 percent at A$5.14. On Thursday, the shares touched a 52-week low of A$5.03.

Feinstein Offers Asbestos Fund Compromise

Reuters News Service

August 17, 2004

Washington - Draft legislation that aims to bridge the gap between competing Senate plans for a U.S. asbestos compensation fund is being circulated by California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The California Democrat's bill assumes a fund of $140 billion to $144 billion, depending on whether existing compensation trusts are brought into the plan, according to a summary sent to Reuters on Friday.

Pending asbestos injury suits would be taken out of the courts and into the new scheme unless a verdict has already been reached or the victim has entered an enforceable settlement.

Asbestos was widely used for fireproofing and insulation until the 1970s. Scientists say inhaled fibers are linked to cancer and other diseases. In recent years hundreds of thousands of injury claims have been filed, forcing companies to pay out $70 billion in compensation to date.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle have been unable to agree on the final details of a plan to take asbestos claims out of the courts and establish a fund paid into by companies and their insurers.

Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has offered a $140 billion fund while Daschle of South Dakota has proposed $145 billion.

According to sources close to the talks, Daschle has proposed allowing asbestos cases for which a trial date has been set to proceed in court.

Frist, however, wants existing claims to revert to the new fund, except in cases where there is a final court judgment - saying businesses and insurers are not willing to fund a compensation trust while suits can still be filed in court.

Under the Feinstein proposal, victims could revert to the court system at any time the fund administrator certifies the trust has run out of money.

If the fund fails to get going within 90 days the sickest asbestos victims could return to the court system until the fund becomes operational, according to the Feinstein bill. There would also be an expedited handling of claims by the fund of the most serious, terminally ill patients, under the Feinstein proposal.

In July, a federal bankruptcy judge approved a $4.2 billion settlement between two units of energy services company Halliburton that could end the companies'long-running liability over asbestos claims.

Most of the claims regarding exposure to asbestos and silica stem from Halliburton's acquisition of DII, formerly Dresser Industries, which the company bought in the 1990s when it was led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Recognised sixty years ago as a deadly disease, the toll from mesothelioma, caused by mining and manufacture and use of asbestos, continues to rise.

Surge in British asbestos claims will cost billions - Insurers and employers face huge bill over next 30 years

Rupert Jones, The Guardian

Tuesday November 2, 2004

A surge in asbestos-related claims over the coming decades could land British insurers and employers with a bill of up to £20bn, according to research by actuaries published yesterday.

The study nails the myth that asbestos is "yesterday's problem" with its prediction that as many as 200,000 new insurance claims from British workers who were exposed to the deadly mineral are expected over the next 30 years or so.

It claims there is a risk of Britain mirroring the US, which has in recent years seen an explosion in claims from people who are not sick but are worried they could become ill - bankrupting several large American firms in the process.

The study is based on data collected by the Actuarial Profession from all major UK insurance companies.

Asbestos was widely used as an insulating material during the 60s and 70s but medical studies later established it can cause cancer and other respiratory diseases if inhaled.

The researchers point to a likely increase in mesothelioma claims over the next few years. Mesothelioma, a relatively rare form of cancer, is probably the most serious asbestos-related disease. It is usually fatal within two years of diagnosis, can develop as a result of very low asbestos exposure and symptoms may not appear for 40 or 50 years.

UK health and safety regulations regarding asbestos have been tightened considerably over the last 30 years, but Britain will be living with the consequences of its use for decades to come.

The study - which focuses on British firms and workers rather than UK companies' exposure to overseas claims - estimated the total future bill at between £8bn and £20bn. British insurers which covered the health of firms' employees are likely to face half of this cost.

The rising bill will also put pressure on local authorities which have employed staff who worked with asbestos, companies which manufactured and installed the heat-proof material, and the state compensation schemes that exist for people whose employers have gone bankrupt or cannot be traced.

US engineering group Federal-Mogul - parent company of Turner & Newall, the British firm at the centre of a pensions dispute - sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after a huge increase in asbestos claims in America.

Asbestos has been described as the biggest occupational health risk faced by workers in Britain. At least 3,500 people died in 2002-03 as a result of exposure to asbestos fibres, with the annual number of deaths expected to peak at 4,000 to 5,000 between 2011 and 2015.

Mesothelioma claims are expected to continue to rise over the next decade, while claims for other asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis are set to fall, according to the study. The average mesothelioma claim is about £100,000.

Julian Lowe, who chaired the working party which carried out the research, said it had been concerned to see a marked increase recently in the number of UK asbestos-related claims where the claimant was not ill.

"In America, claims for so-called 'unimpaired lives' - for the worry of potentially catching an asbestos-related disease - now form around three-quarters of all asbestos-related US claims," he said. "It is highly undesirable for the UK to go down this route, which diverts resources from claimants with real and serious injuries."

While the manufacture and use of asbestos has fallen in western Europe and North America in recent decades, it has continued to expand in Asia and parts of eastern Europe. The study said urgent action was needed by the international community to help these countries deal with the inevitable "appalling" consequences of this activity.

W R Grace - already the subject of nearly 70,000 lawsuits related to asbestos-related diseases is beinginvestigated by a US Grand Jury for similar "crimes" committed at its vermiculite mine in Montana.

Grand jury investigating W.R. Grace & Co. over actions in Libby

Associated Press

October 29, 2004

Baltimore - W.R. Grace & Co. and several of its senior-level employees are the targets of a federal grand jury investigation relating to possible violations of environmental laws in Montana, the company announced Friday.

The Columbia, Md.-based company also said it has been named as a target of the grand jury in Montana involving possible obstruction of federal agency proceedings and conspiring with others to violate federal environmental laws. "Grace believes that the investigation is related to its former vermiculite mining and processing activities in Libby, Mont.," the company said in a statement.

Greg Euston, a company spokesman, declined to comment further. The U.S. attorney's office in Billings, Mont., did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived in Libby in November 1999, after national news reports linked asbestos contamination from a vermiculite mine just outside town to the deaths of nearly 200 people and illness in hundreds more.

"Grace has not been advised of any details about the possible violations of law and is unable to assess at this point whether the results of this investigation will be material to Grace," the company's statement said.

Vermiculite, which was used to make insulation, is a naturally occurring mineral that expands into accordion-shaped pieces when heated and is lightweight and fire-resistant. Grace bought the mining operation -- which once supplied more than 80 percent of the world's vermiculite -- in 1963 and shut it down in 1990. The federal government has said ore from the site is contaminated with asbestos fibers, which were spread through the town as it was mined and processed.

Several current and former senior-level employees associated with the company's construction products business also have been named as targets of the investigation, the company's statement said.

Tony Berget, the mayor of the town of less than 2,900 people in northwestern Montana, said there have been rumors about the federal government taking action for some time. He said residents are "semi-divided" on the matter, with some expressing the view that criminal action is warranted and others who believe Grace should not be treated that harshly because the asbestos occurred naturally in the vermiculite. "It kind of depends on who you're talking to," Berget said.

In April, the company appealed a federal judge's ruling that it must pay the EPA the full $54.5 million for asbestos cleanup in Libby, along with any future costs. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2001.

The EPA filed a lawsuit against Grace in March 2001 to recover cleanup costs in the area, which the EPA has declared a Superfund site. EPA is working to remove asbestos from soil and buildings at the mine site and in town.

Berget said cleanup efforts have been going fairly well in the town, which suffered an economic setback from the contamination. "It seems like we're coming out of that," Berget said. "Things are moving forward."

Company attorneys argued that U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy erred when he ordered Grace to pay the EPA $54.5 million to cover the agency's Libby costs through the end of 2001. They also argued Molloy was in error when he found the company liable for future EPA expenses.

Before Molloy's ruling, W.R. Grace and a subsidiary had agreed to pay nearly $33 million for work done from November 1999 through December 2001, but Grace disputed another $21.5 million in costs.

Grace is a leading global supplier of catalysts and silica products, specialty construction chemicals, building materials, and sealants and coatings.

Shares of W.R. Grace closed up 7 cents at $10.72 in trading Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.

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