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Factory soil a `threat' from asbestos
March 03, 2005 - HAMILTON - The soil around the former W.R. Grace & Co. factory here that produced attic insulation for decades was contaminated with such high levels of asbestos that federal environmental regulators recently declared it an "imminent and substantial threat" to current workers at the site and the surrounding community.
Dirt sampled at the site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency between 2000 and 2001 showed concentrations of asbestos as high as 40 percent in some surface soils on the property, according to an internal EPA report.
Three years after the agency's initial sampling, contractors overseen by the EPA began digging up dirt at the Zonolite site on Industrial Drive. Over the course of five months, they removed more than 9,000 tons of contaminated soil from the property and trucked it to an out-of-state landfill.
The EPA investigation stood in stark contrast to the environmental report filed by W.R. Grace when it closed the site in the mid-1990s.
A consultant hired by the company to assess contamination at the site reported only trace amounts of asbestos on the property, so little of the hazardous material that they asserted it was unnecessary to take soil samples on much of the site.
The state Department of Environmental Protection accepted the company's report and declared the site clean. Five years later, the Accurate Document Destruction Inc. shredding company moved its operations onto the property.
"W.R. Grace said there was no asbestos above 1 percent on the site and that wasn't true," said Richard Cahill, a spokesman for the EPA's Region II office. "We found it was inaccurate by doing sampling on the site."
EPA officials went further this week in suggesting that the report deliberately withheld information about the dangerous material shipped to the site from the company's mine in Libby, Mont.
In its report, W.R. Grace argued that there were only trace amounts of asbestos at the site because the vermiculite from Libby contained less than 1 percent asbestos by weight, an unregulated amount.
"We at the EPA believe that the company knew the shipments to sites such as Hamilton Township contained dangerous levels of asbestos," said an official with the agency, who requested anonymity.
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W.R. Grace was indicted last month in federal court for concealing information about the hazardous nature of the ore it mined in Libby, where 1,200 residents now are suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality, according to the EPA.
Federal prosecutors have alleged company officials knew of the dangers of their vermiculite products as long ago as the 1970s and conspired to hide it.
About 30 facilities around the country that processed large amounts of the ore from Libby to make fire protection products, including the plant in Hamilton, now are being studied by health investigators trying to determine how much asbestos was released, how far it traveled and who may have been exposed to it. Two studies by the state Department of Health and Senior Services of the Hamilton site will be released later this month.
W.R. Grace has steadfastly rebutted the government's charges and says it will fight them.
A spokesman for the company yesterday took issue with the EPA's recent findings in Hamilton as well.
"I haven't seen the report but I'm familiar with the 40 percent figure - because it's wrong," said Greg Euston. "When they took samples, they provided half of each to Grace and when Grace judged the samples, we found only up to 1.5 percent asbestos and that's a significant difference."
But Euston added that the company agreed to fund the recent cleanup because concentrations of asbestos of 1 percent or more "are actionable levels and so it needed to be remediated."
Euston said he could not respond to the EPA's suggestion that the company knew its report was inaccurate because he had not read the report.
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The Hamilton plant began processing vermiculite ore from the mine in Libby in 1948. W.R. Grace bought the mine and the processing plants in 1963, according to the state Department of Health and Senior Services.
Former plant workers said health safeguards at the site, such as the required use of masks and hazardous materials uniforms, were not widely observed until its final years of operation.
An internal EPA "action memo" in 2002 that called for immediate remediation of the site backed up their accounts.
"Both workers have indicated that the interior of the plant was extremely dusty during the exfoliation and Monokote (a structural fireproofing trade name) mixing operations," the memo read, adding, "They also stated that a form of respiratory protection was available but not often used."
Workers said there were times they had to flee the area because swirling dust was so thick it was impossible to breathe.
The contaminated soil sat dormant for more than five years before the EPA began its testing. Yesterday, current occupants of the building said they were dismayed at the time it took to finally clean the site.
"I would certainly have liked to see them work on a faster basis from the first testing period to the removal period but with government bureaucracy, this may be the speediest they could have completed it," said Stephen Mandarano, general manager of the document shredding company.
Mandarano said he was told by EPA officials the contaminated soil presented no danger to his employees because it was located in a remote portion of the property. But after seeing the report, Mandarano acknowledged it said something far different.
"This report, if taken at its face, seems to me they are saying this was a threat to the health of the people working here, in adjacent buildings and the residential population within an undetermined area," Mandarano said.
Breathing asbestos increases a person's risk of developing mesothelioma, or cancer of the lining of the lungs and other internal organs, as well as a different type of cancer in the lung tissue itself.
An asbestos-related condition called asbestosis also produces scarring of the lungs that makes it difficult to breathe.
Health officials say asbestos is a hazard only when released into the air.
Mandarano said he knew of the high concentrations on the property but said he was not concerned because they were not close to the plant.
"The high-concentrated area was in the woods and not in an area with vehicular traffic and not in an area with pedestrian traffic," he said.
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In its 1995 report, W.R. Grace said the mining operation in Montana had sharply reduced the amount of asbestos in the vermiculite, and the Hamilton plant had begun to use vegetable oil to suppress asbestos dust, which kept airborne fibers from being released.
The EPA discounted the use of vegetable oil as a dust suppressant, saying the heat required to process the vermiculite would have burned off the oil.
Finally, the EPA report dismissed the information about the small amounts of Montana vermiculite used, citing records that show 357,724 tons of ore were received from Montana between 1957 and 1991.
Bradley Campbell, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection the past three years, called the 1995 report submitted by W.R. Grace to his agency "completely unacceptable."
But he said it was standard practice to allow the party ultimately responsible for the cleanup of a site to conduct the environmental investigation.
He added, however, "If the EPA has information that a company knowingly provided wrong information, that would be subject to prosecution."
Campbell said the DEP has tightened the self-reporting process in recent years by supervising it more closely. He said the agency periodically audits reports and noted that in recent years the agency very likely would have "required sampling."
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Workers at the shredding facility now at the site were upset Monday after reading about the plant's history in The Times. According to Mandarano, he called an EPA representative to come to speak to the workers about any risks they may face.
Plant manager Nelson Perez, who was at the meeting, said the official told workers no asbestos had been found inside the building since W.R. Grace left.
Perez said the official told them the air around the plant also had been strictly monitored during the soil removal and the tests continually showed no airborne asbestos was stirred up by the digging.
"It made the guys feel comfortable," Perez said. "It's a dead issue now that we have heard there is nothing to worry about."
Asked what he would do now that he had more information about the asbestos, Mandarano said he would simply continue working.
"I can't do anything today," he said. "If I was exposed to asbestos, there is nothing I can do to correct that. The problem has been solved, at least for the people that work here now and in the future."