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WASHINGTON (AP) – Senate Democrats demanded Tuesday that workplace safety officials personally visit Libby, where asbestos from a nearby vermiculite mine has been linked to some 200 deaths.

During a hearing marked by tears and outrage, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., accused officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services of “hiding” from what he said were the fatal effects of lax regulation of asbestos.

Breathing in tiny fibers of asbestos is known to cause cancer, but an earlier ban of asbestos by the EPA was overturned in 1991 by an appeals court. Asbestos is common in roofing material, appliance gaskets, insulation and automotive brake pads.

Senate Democrats, including Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., said they are considering legislation to renew a complete ban on commercial uses of asbestos.

Officials with the EPA, Labor and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said they did not support such a strong measure.

“I don’t know how much more you folks need,” a visibly angry Baucus told a panel of federal public and workplace safety officials that testified before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“These are people who are dying. I want all four of you to come to Libby, Montana and look in their faces,” Baucus said.

Libby is the site of the now-closed W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine. Dust from the mine contained asbestos, which workers breathed in and carried home to their families on their clothes.

Vermiculite from the mine also was spread on school running tracks and in gardens, and offered free to homeowners to spread in their attics as insulation. Children were known to play in giant piles of the vermiculite.

Published reports have linked the deaths of 200 people in Libby to the asbestos from the mine. Grace recently filed for bankruptcy protection, citing the cost of defending itself from lawsuits filed by the families of the sick.

Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a physician in Spokane, Wash., said he has 396 cases of people from Libby – all of whom have some form of sickness he said was caused by asbestos contamination. A quarter of those people, he said, had no connection to the mine other than having lived in Libby, leading him to believe that there was an enormous amount of dust in the air around the town.

In the past three years, he said 24 of his patients have died from asbestosis, a sickness that scars the lungs and leads to fatal pneumonia, lung cancer or even suffocation.

“It is clear from this data that people can obtain severe asbestosis with what would appear to be relatively minimal exposures,” Whitehouse said.

Robbed of two-thirds of his lung capacity from asbestosis, George Biekkola, a 67-year-old retired mine worker from L’Anse, Mich., broke down several times during testimony.

“Americans think asbestos is no longer a danger. But today asbestos fibers are still used in manufacturing and are still ruining the health of workers like myself,” Biekkola said. “Companies will tell you asbestos is not a problem – just like they told me. Senators, they lied.”

However, the Labor Department does not believe any new workplace regulation is needed to protect workers, particularly miners, from the risk of getting sick from asbestos, said David Lauriski, assistant Labor Secretary.

Some mines actively dig for asbestos, but the mineral is also discovered in the course of other mining operations.

“The Mine Act, in my view, gives (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) all the tools necessary to protect miners’ safety and health,” Lauriski said. “The Libby experience is, of course, troubling.”

Since the spring of 2000, MSHA has taken almost 700 samples at more than 40 mines in the country to identify the level of miners’ exposure to asbestos, Lauriski said.

“Why do we need more studies?” said Baucus. “It’s pretty clear what’s happened in Libby.”

The EPA is considering naming Libby to the federal government’s National Priorities List for long-term Superfund cleanup. No final decision has been made.

Copyright © 2001, Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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