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Opinion

Sun., Sept. 18, 2011

Editorial: Asbestos settlement a rare piece of good news

Victims of vermiculite mining in Libby, Mont., hadn’t had many victories, as private and public entities dodged responsibility. But they can look forward to some money to help with medical-related expenses because the state of Montana has finally agreed to a $43 million fund, though fully one-third of that will go to attorneys’ fees.

Nonetheless, 1,125 victims of lung diseases will collect from $21,500 to $60,700 apiece after a decade-long battle over whether the state of Montana had a duty to inform the miners of their dangerous working conditions.

Most of the claimants are 65 or older. The money is a mere pittance compared with what they’ve been through.

But as Jon Heberling, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said: “This may be of help to families exhausted from providing 24-hour care for people dying of asbestos disease.”

The mine was closed in 1990, but an estimated 400 people have died a slow death from the asbestos-laden vermiculite, and another 1,750 have been sickened.

Nine years ago, a District Court judge threw out a claim against the state, saying that it didn’t have a responsibility to tell the workers what it knew – namely, that state inspectors were aware as far back as 1956 that the miners were working in a potential death trap.

The state met with W.R. Grace & Co., which owned the mine at the time, but issued no public warnings. The state’s position was that it was up to Grace to take it from there.

In December 2004, the Montana Supreme Court overturned that ruling, saying the state was duty-bound to do more than hope Grace would follow through. The case was sent back to District Court, where the state and the plaintiffs had been wrangling ever since.

It just adds to the tragedy that it’s taken nearly seven years for this conclusion.

According to an article in the Daily Inter Lake newspaper of Kalispell, Mont., a Spokane physician played a key role in the state’s decision to strike a deal. Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonary specialist, filed a report with the court delineating the extensive damage done to Libby residents.

In the 1970s, Whitehouse was the closest lung specialist to Libby, so he ended up with hundreds of patients. He was the first doctor to notice that the effects of the asbestos extended to the workers’ families. Many workers carried the dust home with them on their boots and clothing.

He kept a detailed medical database that became the bane of W.R. Grace before it filed for bankruptcy, and the state of Montana before it finally accepted responsibility. It’s been a boon to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Public Health Service in assessing the extent of lung scarring in the Libby region.

W.R. Grace was able to escape substantial liability when it filed for bankruptcy in 2001, though that move is still being challenged by Libby plaintiffs. So this settlement with the state of Montana has provided rare good news and, hopefully, some measure of comfort.

To respond to this editorial online, go to spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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