US Base Worker in Japan Gets Asbestos Compensation

The widow of a Japanese man who worked for more than 30 years as a boiler maker at the United States’ Kadena Air Base in Okinawa has received 22 million yen in a case against the Okinawa Defense Bureau.

According to the Kyodo News Service, the man – who was unnamed – serviced boilers at the U.S.-owned based from 1964 until his retirement in 1996. He died of mesothelioma in 2001 and his death was finally ruled an industrial accident in 2006.

After the ruling, in December 2006, the man’s widow filed a 30 million-yen suit against the Okinawa bureau, saying asbestos measures were insufficient at the U.S. base. This week, the Japanese Defense Ministry paid about 22 million yen ($194,700) in compensation to the bereaved wife.

“The bureau has admitted that the U.S. side and the Japanese government, which employs workers for U.S. bases in Japan, had neglected to take sufficient asbestos measures, and paid compensation,” the woman’s lawyer, Takeshi Furukawa, stated.

The lawyer told the media that “the case is significant in that it will pave the way for numerous U.S. base workers in Okinawa to seek redress from courts for asbestos-induced illnesses.”

Thirteen compensation payments have already been made to workers, or families of workers, at another U.S. base, Yokosuka Naval Base, under the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, he said.

Claimants Offer W.R. Grace New Proposal

Committees representing current and future asbestos-related claimants have proposed a reorganization plan for W.R. Grace & Co. that estimates the Columbia, Maryland-based company’s asbestos liabilities to be “at least” $4 billion, notes an article in the Baltimore Sun.

Legal experts say this is most likely the first of many proposed plans that will be presented to the company now that the courts have ended Grace’s exclusive control over its post-bankruptcy reorganization plan. Once all plans are presented, the courts will decide which one to implement.

The article in the Sun notes that the decision by the courts to end the asbestos mining company’s control over their future “opens the possibility that the creditors could reach an agreement with a third party to buy the company and settle its claims.” There has been speculation that Dow Chemical Co. may consider purchasing the embattled W.R. Grace, whose asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana has sickened thousands and already caused hundreds of deaths.

The newly-presented plan, which proposes the company set aside cash and equity to settle claims of at least $4 billion, differs greatly from the plan filed by W.R. Grace in 2005, the article points out. That plan caps asbestos liabilities at $1.6 billion and proposes that claimants be paid through a trust fund.

“Setting up a fund to pay claims is a hurdle Grace must clear to emerge from bankruptcy protection,” the article notes. “But the two sides have been unable to agree how big that fund should be.”

Estimates seem to depend on which side is studying the issue. Earlier this year, an expert hired by Grace’s many creditors estimated the company’s liability to be between $4.7 billion and $6.2 billion. Another hired by W.R. Grace gave a much lower estimate of between $385 million and $1.3 billion.

Rival Canadian Asbestos Firms Join Forces

Two Canadian asbestos firms that have been rivals for decades are joining forces to help promote their product, largely due to the fierce competition from overseas and the strengthening cry in favor of banning Canadian exports of the hazardous mineral.
Spokesmen for LAB Chrysotile of Thetford Mines, Quebec and JM Inc. of Asbestos, Quebec have always fought over the same clients, but the declining use of asbestos and the strength of the Russian and Chinese markets has prompted them to combine their sales teams.
“We need to maximize our sales and minimize our costs,” said Simon Dupéré, president of LAB Chrysotile, which operates two mines in Thetford.
“The past quarrels and rivalry we’ve had with our competitor Jeffrey Mine has been put aside. We need to protect our markets and keep our mines operating,” Dupéré said.
According to an article in the Montreal Gazette, they are calling the new sales team Chrysotile Canada. Chrysotile is the term used to distinguish asbestos fibers produced by the two firms from more toxic forms banned in Canada since the early 1980s.

The combined sales team, however, doesn’t mean that the two companies are merging, owners said. But Dupéré says the rivalry between the companies has not helped either’s bottom line.

“Since I took over my firm four years ago, we have lost about 30 per cent of our sales,” he said. “We still face stiff competition from producers in four other countries, especially Russia. And our higher Canadian dollar is also a concern.”

Together, the two firms produce about 160,000 tons of asbestos annually and employ nearly 1,000 in the two towns.

Testing of Homes in Mining Area Shows Dangerous Asbestos Levels

More than half of a group of homes in Thetford Mines, Quebec, had levels of asbestos high enough that, if the same concentrations were detected in U.S. schools, students wouldn’t be allowed inside the buildings, says a study published today in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health.

The results of the study, reported in an article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper, also indicated that asbestos left in piles of mine waste found throughout the area was drifting into homes and causing potential health hazards. Most of the houses that tested positive for high asbestos levels were downwind from a mine tailing pile or simply very close to one. Asbestos fibers were also found outside on window sills and mixed in with soil.

According to the article, the study was conducted by a Montreal-based activist group, the Asbestos Victims Association of Quebec. The group took air samples from 26 homes in 2003 and 2004, and submitted them for evaluation at an accredited U.S. laboratory.

“If these houses were schools in the United States, they would be shut down until effective corrective measures were taken to bring dust levels below [standards],” the study said.

The testing only represented a small percentage of homes in the mining town but activists feel that the study is a good representation of the asbestos contamination found throughout Thetford Mines. Experts agree.

“The mining towns are completely contaminated because they have mountains of pilings that are totally and constantly off-gassing asbestos dust,” said William Charney, an industrial hygienist in Vermont. Mr. Charney said he believes residents face “a huge public health crisis” from asbestos exposures.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, who has seen the new study, said he was very alarmed by the findings and concerned for the safety of those who live in Thetford Mines.

“I know one thing. If I lived in that community, I’d move,” said Mike Cirian, EPA remediation project manager in Libby, Mont., where about 900 homes and other properties are being cleaned up in a $200-million effort to reduce asbestos contamination from a defunct vermiculite mine.

Mr. Charney said that, based on the study results, Thetford Mines “without any question” should also be considered for a cleanup.

Cleanup Begins at Vermont Mine Site

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it will begin work to reduce asbestos contamination of water at the inactive 2,500 acre Vermont Asbestos Group mine site, located off Mines Road in the towns of Eden and Lowell, Vermont.

According to an EPA press release, the agency is coordinating with Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Conservation on this particular job, which is expected to take until the end of November to complete. Officials say, however, that they may have to return in the spring for further cleanup.

“Our efforts will take a significant step toward stemming the flow of contaminated mining waste into area watersheds” said EPA New England regional administrator Robert W. Varney. “The work will reduce the mine’s adverse ecological impacts and the public’s potential exposure to health hazards.”

A spokesman for the EPA notes that they will be performing several measures in order to insure the continued safety of the water in the area, including rerouting surface water flow to avoid the tailings piles, channeling contaminated flow to on-site surface water retention areas to allow for deposition of fibers, and reinforcing and/or constructing berms to reduce the off-site movement of tailings.

Furthermore, both the EPA and the State of Vermont will be working with the Vermont Asbestos Group, Inc. (VAG), the current property owner, regarding performance of any required maintenance of the measures put in place by the EPA “to ensure their continued effectiveness and integrity.”

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources has been investigating the site since 2004 and notes that “eight wetlands have been significantly damaged by mining waste leaving the site.” Wetland functions, including water storage (flood and storm water), surface and groundwater protection, erosion control, fisheries habitat, wildlife and migratory bird habitat, have been severely impacted by the presence of asbestos.

Illegal Asbestos Removal Results in Jail Sentence

Late last week, a U.S. District Court judge in Utica, New York sentenced two Massachusetts men to 18 months in prison for illegal asbestos removal at a local furniture store.

According to an article in the Albany Business Review and in records submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice, John Russo and John Brewer had previously pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Air Act’s asbestos regulations. They had been hired in 2005 by Mario Rolla, owner of Mohawk Furniture Co. in Broadalbin, N.Y., just east of Gloversville, to remove asbestos from that property.

The article points that a Justice Department announcement about the sentencing stated that Russo and Brewer “scattered substantial amounts of asbestos” throughout the facility. This debris was later discovered by agents with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who, in turn, reported the violations.

Each of the men had received $40,000 cash from Rolla to remove asbestos from both the furniture company building and a manufacturing plant in Massachusetts, Rolla’s home state. According to an official from the Justice Department, Rolla has since paid $2.5 million to properly clean the asbestos contamination at the two sites.

Because of his age and the help he offered in prosecuting Russo, Rolla, 77, was not sent to prison. However, U.S. District Judge David Hurd fined Rolla $40,000 and sentenced him to five years of probation.

EPA Fines Arizona Dept. of Transportation

Earlier this week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was levying a fine against the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) and BCS Enterprises, a Gilbert, Ariz. demolition contractor, for violations of the Clean Air Act involving improper asbestos removal.

A press release issued by the EPA notes that the two organizations will pay a combined fine of more than $36,000. The fines are the result of an improper demolition of an asbestos-containing structure in Florence Junction, Pinal County, Arizona.

“If not handled properly, asbestos is a hazard to demolition workers and to the surrounding communities,” said Deborah Jordan, the EPA’s Air Division director for the Pacific Southwest region. “This is the EPA’s fourth asbestos enforcement action against the Arizona Department of Transportation in the past five years. We expect them to address this potentially hazardous pattern of non-compliance.”

According to EPA records, during the demolition – which took place in April 2006 – ADOT and BCS Enterprises violated federal laws by failing to 1) remove the asbestos shingles before demolition; 2) maintain and provide proper waste shipment records; and 3) properly notify the EPA and the local air pollution control agency of the demolition and asbestos removal operations.

This is not the first time the Arizona Department of Transportation has been fined for asbestos-related violations. In 2003, the department paid $116,000 in fines and implemented a compliance program to settle a judicial case against itself and four other defendants involving notification and inspection violations at four demolition sites in Arizona. Further violations occurred in 2005, pertaining to the demolition of an abandoned fuel island in the town of Show Low, Arizona.

County Employees File Asbestos Suit

Earlier this week, sixteen Cayuga County (NY) Board of Elections employees filed suit against the county, alleging ongoing exposure to asbestos during a removal project that took place last year.

According to an article in the Auburn Citizen, the summons, filed Tuesday by Auburn attorney Carl DePalma, accuses the county of negligence in allowing day-to-day operations to continue in the Board of Elections building despite the illegal removal of asbestos last year. The suit argues that all 16 employees were “unknowingly exposed to cancer-causing asbestos” between the months of February and August 2006.

The list of plaintiffs includes Republican Election Commissioner Cheryl Heary as well as deputy commissioners Thomas Prystal and Deborah Calarco.

“The acts by the defendant were arbitrary, conscience-shocking, outrageous, egregious and made in knowing violation of numerous constitutional principles as well as federal, state and local laws and regulations,” the summons document states. “The plaintiffs were directed and/or suffered and/or caused and/or permitted to work at the time of the aforementioned exposures.”

Last week, DePalma filed a similar suit on behalf of six county prison inmates who were made to work on a boiler removal project where asbestos was present. The men were given no protective gear to wear during the removal.

DePalma says he plans to file another lawsuit before week’s end – this one on behalf of any members of the public that may have been exposed to asbestos while visiting the Board of Elections during that same time period.

Anthony Garropy, the county employee who acted as a whistleblower and alerted authorities as to the illegal asbestos removal, filed a lawsuit against the county on October 16th. He is seeking damages as well as the return of his job.