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Mining Company Ordered to Pay for Cleanup

August 28, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal judge has ordered the company that operated a Libby, Mont., vermiculite mine to repay $54.5 million the federal government has spent investigating and cleaning up the asbestos-tainted town.

W.R. Grace and Co. and a subsidiary had already agreed to pay nearly $33 million for work done from November 1999 through December 2001. But Grace disputed claims from the Environmental Protection Agency and Justice Department that it must pay an additional $21.5 million in costs.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula, Mont., sided with the government in a decision announced Wednesday.

The Justice Department said the amount is the largest judgment ordered after a trial in the history of the federal Superfund law. Molloy heard arguments from both sides during a three-day trial earlier this year.

W.R. Grace could appeal the decision. The company filed for bankruptcy in April 2001, meaning any payments it makes to satisfy the judgment must be ordered by the bankruptcy judge.

``It’s not really the end of the saga,″ Wendy Thomi, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the Libby site, said Wednesday. ``It’s a very good step in the right direction.″

Justice Department attorneys called the ruling a victory.

``From the beginning of this case, W.R. Grace has refused to accept responsibility for contaminating this small town,″ Thomas L. Sansonetti, an assistant attorney general, said in a written statement.

Grace officials could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Grace operated the vermiculite mine from 1963 to 1990. Newspaper reports in 1999 first linked health problems in Libby to the mine.

The government says ore from the site is contaminated with asbestos fibers, which were spread through the town as it was mined and processed. Asbestos contamination has been blamed for some 200 deaths and health problems of hundreds of other area residents.

Since 1999, the EPA has been working on an emergency basis to remove asbestos from soil and buildings at the mine site and in town.

Libby was added to the national Superfund cleanup list and has been called the most significant hazardous site in Montana. The designation makes the city eligible for extensive, long-term work.

Costs incurred since 2001 will be resolved in future proceedings if W.R. Grace disputes them.

In a related settlement, W.R. Grace agreed to spend $2.75 million to create a fund to provide additional health care for Libby residents with asbestos-related diseases.

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