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"There are not a dozen of those men alive"
By TRACEY L. REGAN
HAMILTON - February 27, 2005 - For the past four years, Helen McCall has been a widow in mourning, and now she is a grieving mother as well.
Her husband, Jim, died when he was 66 after a years-long struggle with lung and heart disease. Her son Bobby Lee, who developed lung cancer in his 30s and suffered from acute bouts of asthma, died a month ago. He was just 49.
Both men worked for a now-defunct plant in Hamilton that made attic insulation by processing vermiculite ore from a mine in Libby, Mont., that contained a rare, naturally occurring form of asbestos called tremolite.
Bobby Lee had cancer, his mother said, noting, "They took half of one of his lungs and it spread to his liver." Her husband had been treated at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia by doctors who specialized in asbestos-related illnesses, among others.
The McCalls were not the only workers at the plant, operated by W.R. Grace & Co. until the mid-1990s, to fall sick. Looking back, Helen McCall, a Trenton resident, says she is stunned by how little attention the plant has received.
"There were three shifts a day, and there are not a dozen of those men left alive," she said.
But the plant - and the fate of its workers - are now the subject of intense scrutiny by federal and state agencies. W.R. Grace is under indictment for concealing information about the hazardous nature of the ore it mined in Libby, where 1,200 residents are now suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
More than two dozen facilities around the country that processed large amounts of the ore from Libby, including the plant in Hamilton, are being studied by health investigators trying to determine how much asbestos was released, how far it traveled and who may have been exposed to it.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry "needed to find out if other communities had health problems as great as Libby's," said John Florence, a spokesman for the agency.
Next month, the state Department of Health and Senior Services, which is investigating the site on behalf of the ATSDR in Atlanta, plans to release studies that look at "exposure pathways" over the course of the plant's 4 1/2 decades of operation as well as cancer rates in the U.S. Census tracts close to it.
"We are estimating the historic air dispersion around the site," said Donna Leusner, a spokeswoman for the department who would not comment on results from either of the studies.
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Under EPA supervision last year, an environmental services contractor carted away more than 9,000 tons of asbestos-tainted soil from the former plant's grounds on Industrial Drive, an isolated stretch of road dotted with decades-old factory buildings, according to EPA spokesman Richard Cahill.
A spokesman for Grace acknowledged last week there had been asbestos at the plant, but said the company took careful measures to contain it as "industrial knowledge related to asbestos evolved."
"I don't think Grace would ever dispute that asbestos was on-site," said Greg Euston, a spokesman for the Columbia, Md.-based manufacturer of building materials, specialty construction chemicals and other industrial products.
Euston said the company milled the ore in Libby to remove as much asbestos as it could, took air samples at its plants, installed dust-control devices and ventilation systems, enclosed the silos where the ore was stored and required workers to wear respirators. By the early 1970s, he added, the company required "annual X-ray testing of all employees."
The name Zonolite is just legible on the outside of the brick building where an insulation business was in operation from the late 1940s until the mid-1990s, according to state health officials. W.R. Grace bought the Montana mine and the so-called "exfoliators" it supplied from the Zonolite Co. in 1963.
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In Hamilton, as in other locations that processed vermiculite, trains delivered the ore by way of a rail spur on the grounds.
Workers at the plant made the insulation by "popping" it from the lightweight ore they heated to 1,500 degrees or more in furnaces on-site.
ATSDR, working with state health agencies in some regions, has already investigated several of these plants, in such cities as Beltsville, Md.; Denver, Colo.; and West Chicago, Ill. The agency has concluded that employees at the facilities that processed the Libby vermiculite were exposed to elevated levels of asbestos.
The studies also warned workers may have carried fibers home on their clothes, skin or hair, exposing family members as well. The review of operations at the Beltsville plant recommended that former workers and the people who lived with them undergo health evaluations.
"It is very important that health messages get out," said Barbara Anderson, an environmental health scientist with the ATSDR and director of the study of the 28 vermiculite processors.
She added that investigators are also trying to determine what happened to waste rock left over from processing.
Breathing asbestos increases a person's risk of developing mesothelioma, or cancer of the lining of the lungs and other internal organs, as well as a different type of cancer in the lung tissue itself. An asbestos-related condition called asbestosis produces scarring of the lungs that makes it difficult to breathe.
Bobby Lee McCall's wife, Denise, said her husband did not fully understand the dangers of his work until his father overheard managers at the plant discussing the then-young man's X-ray report.
"His Dad said to him, `Go in and ask to see your X-ray report,' " the Browns Mills resident recalled. "He came home that night and said, `Babe, that job is killing me.' "
After learning his lungs had been compromised, Denise McCall said, her husband started wearing a mask and began showering at the plant. "Before that, he would come home and wash his clothes," she said, noting that he was often "covered" in white dust. He had been on long-term disability for more than a decade before he died in January, she said.
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The current occupants of the site, a commercial paper shredder whose clients include the state of New Jersey, said they never understood the potential perils on the property until environmental regulators knocked on their door about a year and a half ago and told them they would need to test the grounds for asbestos.
"The fact that we had asbestos came as a bit of a surprise," recalled Stephen Mandarano, general manager for Accurate Document Destruction Inc., adding that the facility came with a "book-sized" clearance from state environmental regulators when the company bought it in the late 1990s. The company moved to the property in March 2000, he said.
Indeed, the property got a clean bill of health when W.R. Grace closed it in 1994 and performed the obligatory site evaluation, state regulators said.
The report stated that the Montana vermiculite processed at the site contained only trace amounts of tremolite that amounted to .3 to 1 percent of the material by weight and that the processor used only a very small amount of it in the final years of operation.
Under state and federal guidelines, there are no restrictions on the use of materials that contain less than 1 percent asbestos by weight, said Fred Mumford, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"They represented to us that there were no asbestos-related issues on-site and that (assessment) was approved," said Mumford. "We didn't require any further remedial tests."
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After recent sampling at the site, however, contractors overseen by the EPA found enough evidence of residual asbestos that the agency required them to remove more than 9,000 tons of dirt in what is just the first phase of remediation at the site, said the EPA's Cahill.
"Hundreds of trucks took away soil," Mandarano recalled, noting, however, that company officials were relieved to learn that no asbestos particles were detected inside the buildings. The fibers must be airborne to be hazardous, federal health officials said.
The cleanup, which lasted from November 2003 to May 2004, cost $1.4 million, Cahill said, adding, "There will be another phase when we remove `hot spots' from contiguous areas."
W.R. Grace was indicted earlier this month for knowingly endangering the residents of Libby, Mont., and for concealing evidence of the health effects of its mining operations. Federal prosecutors have alleged that company officials knew of the dangers of their vermiculite products as far back as the 1970s and conspired to hide it.
"We categorically deny the indictment," Euston said.
W.R. Grace voluntarily entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001 as the number of asbestos claims against the company mounted sharply. Last November, the company filed a plan to deal with the claims that includes establishing a trust to pay pending and future claims.
The McCalls say they and other former workers with significant health problems and their families have filed claims against the company.
"(Grace) sent me a letter saying they had filed for bankruptcy," Helen McCall said, adding, "That was six months ago."