Asbestos Settlement for W.R. Grace Wins Approval

Washington Post - An agreement for W.R. Grace to reimburse the federal government $250 million for investigating and cleaning up asbestos contamination in a Montana town was recently approved by a federal bankruptcy judge.

The chemical maker, based in Columbia, agreed to the amount in March in order to settle a bankruptcy claim brought by the government to recoup money for the past and future cleanup in Libby Montana in the schools, homes and businesses that were contaminated.

Hundreds of people were sickened by the contamination and some have died.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith Fitzgerald signed an order during a hearing in Pittsburgh stipulating that within 30 days Grace must pay the agreed to amount.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department have said that the settlement would be the largest reimbursement ever through the government's Superfund program.

Although the settlement was a "substantial compromise" for the government according to James D. Freeman, a Justice Department attorney, he said that the prompt payment would permit ongoing cleanup without budgetary concerns.

The EPA's investigative work and cleanup in Libby began in 1999 and taxpayers have been footing the bill for it. According to a Libby EPA official in Libby expenses totaled $168 million in March and it was likely that there would be another $175 million incurred.

Grace owned vermiculite mining and processing facilities a few miles from the northwestern town in Montana from 1963 to 1990 when the site was closed. The asbestos came from those mines.

Used for insulation, fireproofing and gardening, millions of tons of the asbestos-containing vermiculite ore were shipped from the mine near Libby to around 270 processing plants across the U.S.

Libby asbestos exposure has been said to be the cause of lung-scarring asbestosis and mesothelioma, a quick moving cancer affecting the lungs.

Remaining Libby cleanup is estimated to take three to five years according to the EPA.

Lawsuits over asbestos forced Grace to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April 2001.

Also in 2001, the government, in order to recover costs, filed a lawsuit. The EPA won a $54 million judgment for cleanup costs incurred through Dec. 31, 2001 two years later, but that amount went unpaid during Grace's bankruptcy proceedings. The 2003 judgment was included in the settlement announced in March.

A deal valued by plaintiffs' attorneys at $3 billion in cash and equity was reached by Grace in April to resolve current and future asbestos claims.

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