Judge Judith Fitzgerald, who is presiding over the ongoing case of W.R. Grace and Company–the corporation largely responsible for the plague of asbestos disease that has afflicted the workers of Libby, Montana–has determined that the State of Montana also bears responsibility and has refused to grant immunity from lawsuits.
According to Judge Fitzgerald’s ruling issued on 31 March 2008, the State of Montana failed in its obligation to oversee the corporation’s actions and enforce worker safety standards. She also determined that any lawsuits filed against the State of Montana over W.R. Grace and Company’s Libby asbestos mining operation “don’t present a direct threat to the company’s bankruptcy proceedings.” W.R. Grace and Company recently agreed to pay $250 million in compensation to the federal government for costs incurred in the cleanup of Libby’s asbestos contamination. In addition, several of the company’s financial and executive officers have been indicted on federal criminal charges in the case. Meanwhile, the State of Montana is facing lawsuits alleging that state agencies were negligent in their “failure to warn residents and mineworkers” about the potential health hazards of asbestos mining. Since the mines closed nearly eighteen years ago, over 1,200 people have either died from or contracted some form of asbestos disease.
Many of the lawsuits charge that the Montana mines produced deadly amphibole asbestos–in this case, referring to the tremolite that contaminated the vermiculite that was produced in Libby. Amphibole–a variety that also includes crocidolite (“blue” asbestos) and amosite (“brown” asbestos) is far more dangerous than the relatively softer white chrysotile variety that was also mined in Libby, and is known to cause mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer. In her ruling, Judge Fitzgerald reaffirmed her earlier decision in which she denied the State of Montana the right to seek immunity behind the bankruptcy of W.R. Grace and Company. The case of Libby Montana was first brought to national attention by a series of articles appearing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1999 and 2000.