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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

EPA Investigates Itself

Air Date: Week of

The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating why its officials never followed up on a 1982 study which found high levels of asbestos in one Montana mine’s vermiculite, an ingredient in home insulation and construction products. Diane Toomey speaks with Adrianne Appel, a freelance reporter who has been following the story for the New York Times.


TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Last year the town of Libby, Montana, made headlines when high rates of lung cancer there were traced to a local mining operation. For years the W.R. Grace company had mined for vermiculite, a material used in insulation. Vermiculite itself is harmless, but is often found mixed with asbestos, a potent carcinogen. Then came the revelation that 18 years ago the Environmental Protection Agency suspected the tainted vermiculite posed a danger, after vermiculite workers began to get sick. The agency prepared a report in 1982 but never released it to the public, and the study was shelved before any safety recommendations were made. Freelance reporter Adrianne Appel has been covering the story for the New York Times, along with colleague Michael Moss. Adrianne, what exactly did the EPA find when it first investigated the Grace mine?

APPEL: They did find that it appeared that there are high amounts of asbestos, up to 21 to 26 percent in the raw ore coming out of the ground. That was far higher than Grace had reported earlier. And at that point the EPA talked about doing other studies, looking at what would happen to it as it was processed. And what happened to the asbestos in the processing plants. But for reasons that are lost to time at this point, that part of the study was dropped, and the EPA never followed through.

TOOMEY: So the EPA gathers this information that there was a higher level of asbestos than there should have been in this particular vermiculite. But then they drop the ball and they do nothing with this information. What was going on at the EPA that that happened?

APPEL: Some people at the EPA who I've spoken to, who are involved in these studies, say that there was pressure at that point to move on, to look at other toxins in the environment, such as dioxin. They moved on.

TOOMEY: So it was simply a matter of priority, some of those are saying.

APPEL: Exactly. But it doesn't make sense. Looking at the data it would have been obvious at that point that people were sick who were working with this product for any length of time. And also, it can't be overlooked that J. Peter Grace of the W.R. Grace company had been appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1982 to head up the President's Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, otherwise known as the Grace Commission. The purpose of the commission supposedly was to cut waste and abuse within the government. But the commission, when it came out with its more than 2,000 recommendations, it was obvious that many of them included policy recommendations. Some that would have dismantled parts of the EPA.

TOOMEY: So, can we connect the dots between what was going on with this commission and what wasn't going on with the investigation of the mining operation?

APPEL: That's an open question.

TOOMEY: While this EPA investigation is going on in the 80s, what is Grace saying about its own product internally?

APPEL: There was a small circle of executives who knew that there was asbestos in the products, and they were very concerned about government regulators. Very concerned about liability if it should be made public that their products had asbestos possibly in amounts that could harm people. Publicly, they maintained at times that there was no asbestos in their products, and/or that the amount of asbestos was very, very, very small. In 1983 a customer who had bought some of Grace's products wrote to the company and asked, point blank, are these products carcinogenic? Well, Grace writes back, "There is no significant exposure to cancer-causing materials in the use of these products. However, both may be slightly dusty, and you should avoid breathing this or any dust if you can."

TOOMEY: So are they directly disputing the EPA results?

APPEL: Grace has not disputed the EPA's results. The company has simply said that our results were different.

TOOMEY: Of course, there's a controversy regarding how one measures asbestos, isn't there?

APPEL: Yes, but at the same time there were workers in the 1960s who were ill with asbestos, and the W.R. Grace Company knew that. They were taking X-rays of their employees, and the executives at the W.R. Grace Company knew that a certain percentage of their employees would become ill with asbestos and lung cancer.

TOOMEY: Though I suppose the company would say well, we're removing, in the processing of this vermiculite, a good portion of the asbestos. So by the time Joe Homeowner is handling the material, and he's only handling the material for a limited amount of time, it's safe.

APPEL: That is their defense, but these products were largely unstudied. And it's unknown territory.

TOOMEY: So, as the EPA investigates this, and followed the paper trail, and tries to figure out what happened a couple of decades ago, in the meantime there is about a million homes, I believe, that contain this asbestos-tainted vermiculite. So what's a homeowner to do at this point?

APPEL: The EPA is telling homeowners who think that they have this Zonolite attic insulation in their homes, either in their attic or behind the walls of their house, to have it tested if they are very concerned about it. But also to hold off on any renovation of their homes until it's ascertained just how much asbestos is in this product. But also how dangerous this product really is.

TOOMEY: Adrianne Appel is a freelance reporter who's been following this story for the New York Times. Adrianne, thanks for joining us today.

APPEL: Thank you very much.



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