Allegations of misspent grant money have caused a federal investigation and Superfund Libby financing to be put on hold. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-funded program helps residents deal with asbestos if they plan to disturb soil on their properties.
Lincoln County commissioners hired an independent auditor who discovered some of the grant money was going toward legal services. The officials then notified the EPA, which kickstarted the investigation.
Libby is where the W.R. Grace & Company operated asbestos and vermiculite mines for 30 years from approximately 1919 to 1990. Six executives were indicted on criminal charges after being sued by a mesothelioma lawyer.
Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral used in the production of insulating materials—and is extremely toxic. During the W.R. Grace mine’s operation, the harmful vermiculite ore was shipped to over 50 processing plants throughout North America.
“We’ve been notified by the county that there have been some questions about consistencies with federal grant regulations. That’s something our agency is currently evaluating,” said EPA spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison.
“The program can continue to operate, but it’s the reimbursements that are going to be subject to the grant review,” added Harrison.
Now, nearly half the population of Libby, Montana has been diagnosed with asbestos disease in addition to the 200 who have died from exposure to the asbestos-tainted vermiculite.
Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Gary Cohn wrote an article about a Libby family with generations of dead or sick members due to asbestos-related diseases traced back to the W.R. Grace mine.
“It’s the third generation in our family, like everybody else’s,” said family member Gayla Benefield. “We’ve all learned that if you don’t have it, it will come.”
The final phase of clean-up will last another two to three years and cost $64 million.
“For more than a century, asbestos has been known to cause diseases, yet the government allowed W.R. Grace to operate the Libby toxic mine up until 1990 and has allowed imports of asbestos to continue,” said President of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) Linda Reinstein.
Lincoln County has already paid for the legal fees, but is still waiting to hear back about the exact dollar amount owed to the EPA.