Two weeks after a federal jury acquitted W.R. Grace & Co. and three executives on criminal charges that they knowingly exposed residents in Libby to deadly asbestos, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced what he calls a “breath of fresh air” for the northwest Montana town: a $6 million grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to provide health care for residents stricken with asbestos-related diseases.
In an interview with the Beacon, Baucus said the grant is the first significant chunk of money the federal government has put directly toward medical care for people in Libby who fell ill after exposure to tremolite asbestos from W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine. The money also helps lay the groundwork for a future public health emergency declaration, Baucus said, which would authorize cleanup in Libby homes and require the federal government to provide screenings and health care for residents with asbestos-related sicknesses.
Though he said he was “disappointed” in the W.R. Grace verdict, Baucus said “history is history and we have to move forward.” The grant, he said, is a major step. The money will be distributed to the Lincoln County Health Department and a consortium of at least three other health care entities.
“You have no idea how important this is to me because I want to bring justice to the people of Libby,” Baucus said. “This is huge; this is amazing. We’ve been fighting for this for so long.”
The public health emergency declaration has long been a battle cry for Baucus. Last September, Baucus released a 50-page report that detailed a scenario in which the Environmental Protection Agency appeared ready to issue the declaration in 2002 but abruptly halted the plan after the White House’s Office of Management and Budget interfered. The report used evidence from more than 14,000 internal governments. At the time, Baucus called the findings an “outrage.”
But with the $6 million, Baucus feels the government is once again on the right track toward making the declaration. The senator has been in frequent contact with Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, and Kathleen Sebelius, head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Judging by their conversations, Baucus feels the declaration is “likely coming.”
“I’m hopeful and I’m not going to give up to until we have it,” Baucus said.
Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over HHS. He is also a senior member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the EPA.
From 1963 to 1990, W.R. Grace owned and operated the Libby vermiculite mine. The vermiculite was used predominantly for fireproofing and insulation in millions of homes and buildings around the nation. But the mine also released tremolite asbestos that miners breathed in and carried home on their clothes for family members to breathe in. Others were sickened by exposure, even with no mining connections in the family. All told, more than 200 died and some 2,000 more fell ill from asbestos-related complications.
After the U.S. District Court jury in Missoula reached its not-guilty verdict on May 8, Dean Herreid, a Libby resident who has asbestosis, vowed to move forward and try to leave the past behind him. His sentiment is shared by many in the town.
“We’ve got to get on with life,” Herreid said. “Justice was attempted.”
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