Shop in Beltsville got Montana asbestos

Grace vermiculite sent to more than 200 plants

February 10, 2005|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,SUN STAFF

Sheldon Myrie used to steer clear of a back room at his Beltsville workplace after he learned that federal officials discovered trace amounts of asbestos that had traveled there from a Montana mine.

"They said there was nothing to worry about, but I thought hopefully there was nothing that could kill me back there because I have young children to take care of," said Myrie, who works for Atlantic Transportation Equipment Ltd., which has since moved to a nearby building.

The now abandoned shop in a Prince George's County industrial park was one of more than 200 sites from New York to Hawaii where asbestos-tainted vermiculite was shipped or processed and used for insulation, fireproofing and fertilizer. The vermiculite came from Libby, a Montana town that has been in the national spotlight since W.R. Grace & Co. was indicted Monday on charges that it knowingly endangered residents.

As Libby learns more about the asbestos spread from the mine to homes and schoolyards, communities across the country are waiting for answers about the extent of contamination and potential health risks in their own back yards. The unknowns radiate far beyond the northwest corner of Montana.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been visiting the sites, focusing on Beltsville and 27 other processing plants that received most of the vermiculite from Libby. But the agency hasn't released reports on more than half of the sites, and they have yet to contact many of the former plant workers and their families who may have been exposed to the hazardous material.

"Libby is a tiny fraction of the asbestos disaster in this nation," Richard Wiles, senior vice president at Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, said yesterday. "People close to these sites for the years they were run should definitely be concerned. I'm not recommending panic, but this stuff is not to be messed with. It's deadly."

The agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, concluded in 2003 that very little asbestos remained at the Beltsville site and that current workers weren't at risk. The back room where asbestos was discovered posed "no apparent health hazard," according to its report. However, the report noted that if someone disturbed dust in the area, they could be exposed to "significant amounts" of asbestos.

Along with Grace, seven current and former employees were indicted by a federal grand jury in Missoula, Mont., accused of concealing information about the health effects of its mining operation. The Columbia-based company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001 to shield itself from asbestos-related lawsuits.

Grace said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission yesterday that it put one of the defendants in the criminal case, Senior Vice President Robert Bettacchi, and two other employees on leave with pay "so that they may dedicate sufficient time to their defense."

Company spokesman Greg Euston said that "99.9 percent" of the 130,000 personal injury claims filed against the company are not related to the Libby vermiculite. Euston said the company has paid workers' compensation claims to employees at Libby and the other processing plants.

Grace operated the plant in Beltsville that processed Libby vermiculite until the early 1990s. Grace closed the plant and about 50 others over 20 years through 1998, and typically removed all the equipment, filtered the air with high-powered vacuums and washed the buildings, Euston said. Still, he said, "it's hard to know exactly what was done in each facility."

`Decontaminated'

Jeffrey Faigle, a developer in Trenton, N.J., who owns the Beltsville property, said W.R. Grace helped clean the site several years ago. "The whole place has been totally decontaminated," he said, "with the exception of, oh, I don't know, maybe a molecule that they found behind an office."

Experts say the Libby case was unique in the dangers posed to residents. Most of the world's vermiculite ore was mined there from the early 1920s through 1990 before being shipped out. It's the kind of small town where people live most of their lives, lengthening the timeline of potential exposure. It's also set in a valley, where asbestos fibers and dust released into the air can be trapped.

About 1,200 people have been sickened from asbestos exposure over the 30 years that Grace operated the mine, according to the Department of Justice. Breathing asbestos, a human carcinogen that doesn't have a detectable odor or taste, increases the risk of lung cancer, including the rare form called mesothelioma, and asbestosis, or a scarring of lung tissue.

The Environmental Protection Agency has declared the area a Superfund site and spent more than $55 million on cleanup, disposing of more than 250,000 cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated waste at the Grace mine. The EPA, on its Web site, assures that Libby is "a great place to live."

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