Asbestos dangers remained hidden for decades
Many nights, Ralph Blevins' chest hurts too much to sleep. He can only take so many pain pills, so much sleep medicine. So, he props himself upright on a living room easy chair to make breathing easier.
For a long time, Blevins could not figure out what made him ill. Then, 45 years after leaving a $1.95-an-hour job he'd worked for just six months, Blevins found out that the dusty ore he handled in a downtown Salt Lake City processing plant was heavily polluted with an especially toxic form of asbestos. He believes the thick dust at Intermountain Vermiculite gave him asbestosis, a deadly lung disease.
"There's no way of making it better," says Blevins. "There's no cure."
No one told Blevins he was in danger then. No one contacted him years later to explain. And there is every reason to believe other Utahns are in the dark, too. Dangerous vermiculite from a Libby, Mont., mine was a popular attic insulation, cement additive and soil conditioner used by gardeners in Utah and worldwide. But health and environmental officials have not alerted former plant workers and the Utah public about the risks.
The source: Max Dodson, assistant director for the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Denver region, insists there is "nothing low-key" about the Libby vermiculite problem.
"The tragedy is profound," he says. "It's a gut-wrencher."
His agency was drawn into it over Thanksgiving, 1999, when newspaper articles told about a cluster of people with lung disease in the northwestern Montana mining town. Most of nearly 200 residents who had died worked in W.R. Grace's nearby Zonolite vermiculite mine and processing plants. But some merely lived with workers or in the area.
The EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, determined the vermiculite ore contained tiny bundles of the carcinogen asbestos.
The microscopic fibers filled the thick vermiculite dust in the mine, at the plant and even in the air surrounding the community. With every breath, the sharp fibers speared into lung tissue. And often 10 to 40 years later, the body responded with lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma, a cancer triggered only by asbestos.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry began local health screenings. The EPA began a controversial cleanup that has cost $173 million so far.
The EPA has sued W.R. Grace, the company that owned the mine and dozens of processing plants, to recover cleanup expenses, although the company declared bankruptcy. In February, the U.S. Justice Department indicted seven Grace executives and the company itself for conspiracy, obstruction and Clean Air Act violations.
In addition, the EPA discovered vermiculite is not only Libby's problem. More than 5.8 million tons of Libby vermiculite went to more than 200 locations. About 50,000 tons went to two Salt Lake City plants. Another 11,000 tons went to wallboard plants in Sigurd.
A shiny discovery: Joyce Ackerman came to Utah a few months after the news flurry to check the addresses where Libby ore was sent. An EPA cleanup manager, she saw the telltale sparkly dust and soil at 733 W. 800 South, where a modernized Zonolite plant processed vermiculite for a few years.
But nothing in Sigurd. And nothing at the 333 W. 100 South location, now a blacktop and gravel parking lot for the EnergySolutions Arena across the street.
Two summers later, though, she met a former worker who helped Ackerman find the old processing plant's footprint and, under gravel, the sparkle of vermiculite. It was the buried remains of the plant founded in 1941 by Lee Irvine, who had painted on the tall stack the word "Zonolite," after Grace's attic insulation.
For 43 years, trains pulled up to Vermiculite Intermountain, ore was loaded onto a conveyor belt and dumped into a 2,000-degree furnace.
Ralph Blevins and other workers recall that the ore "popped like popcorn" inside. And, silvery and fluffy, the expanded vermiculite tumbled through a hopper into bags that trucks and trains hauled away for sale in Utah and parts of Idaho.
The cleanup: The asbestos settled in and remained at the two Salt Lake City plant sites until the EPA ordered emergency cleanups in 2004 and 2005.
About 1,400 cubic yards of contaminated dirt was hauled away from outside the old Intermountain Products building on 800 South. High-tech vacuuming removed traces of the dangerous mineral inside. The taxpayer-funded Superfund program covered the $1.4 million tab.
Irvine's Vermiculite Intermountain site turned out to be trickier. Cleanup crews in Tyvek safety suits vacuumed surrounding buildings where traces of asbestos could still be found two decades after the plant shut down.
They expected to remove about 3,900 cubic yards of tainted material outdoors. But the volume multiplied when Pacificorp dug deeper and discovered vermiculite waste and rocks, and 35 percent asbestos on the portion of the site it now owns.
Pacificorp spent $3.4 million. The EPA, $2.3 million. And another $1.4 million is the projected cost for removing the last remaining contamination below the parking lot next spring.
Skeptical: Maury Jacobs still can't believe there was anything to clean up at the old Vermiculite Intermountain, let alone a $7.1 million excavation.
In 1973, the new Granite High School grad got his first job at the plant. In his two years there, he never wore a mask. Not even for the most dusty chore, shoveling furnace waste into trucks headed to the county landfill.
No one ever told him that the vermiculite might be dangerous or even hinted at it. Not the bosses. Not the EPA, whose cleanup he stumbled onto while delivering cement one day. Jacobs, now 51, still doubts the danger.
"There's no way there could be asbestos in the vermiculite. It's an ore."
Report pending: The federal government has continued working over the years to understand the Libby vermiculite threat. It awarded the state of Utah $80,000 in 2001 to look into evidence of health effects around the Utah plants.
Wayne Ball, head of epidemiology at the state Health Department, had his team analyze the Utah Cancer Registry for trends surrounding the Salt Lake City plants and submitted its report in August 2004 to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, where it languished until last spring.
Ball declined to release the report because it is still a draft. But he hinted that it is bound to raise more questions than it answers, given a lack of information about the plant's workers, their families, people who lived near the plants and other factors.
A family thing: Montana resident Curt Campbell knows Libby vermiculite and what it can do to people. He worked at the Great Falls, Mont., Zonolite plant before joining the Salt Lake City crew for the two years before the plant closed. He calls it "one of the dirtiest, dustiest jobs there was."
At 69, he feels short of breath sometimes, but his family doctor has given him a clean bill of health. His son, also a vermiculite worker, is doing fine so far.
But a daughter who never worked at the plant has asbestosis. She might have gotten it hugging her dusty dad at the end of the day. Or maybe from vermiculite used in their home.
Campbell fears for others, too. He recalls how laborers would be hired off the streets of Salt Lake City to do the dirty jobs of unloading the ore and cleaning up the waste. And workers on the payroll tended to be minorities, like the two Navajo who taught Campbell their language and the Mexican who was "my right hand man."
"I wonder about those Indian kids or the Mexican kids," says Campbell, who was their supervisor. "Nobody told me anything about that [asbestos contamination] I wonder if they knew."
Company indicted: In court papers filed in the Montana criminal case, prosecutors allege that W.R. Grace and its executives hid the dangers of Libby vermiculite for decades. A 1961 memo acknowledges that disease-causing asbestos was hard to contain in the plant dust - years before Blevins, Jacobs and Campbell labored at the Salt Lake City plant.
Grace, which did not respond to requests to comment for this article, has insisted all along that its plants and its products were safe.
'Low-key' approach: In Salt Lake City, as the local cleanups were about to begin, an EPA community relations officer e-mailed Utah environmental regulators about public attention the cleanup might draw.
"We all agree to 'low-key' this as much as possible [no press releases]," said the April 8, 2004, note.
For the EPA, the cleanup was a priority, explained Sonya Pennock, of the agency's Denver office. Addressing past hazards is the responsibility of health officials.
"I don't think there was a conscious effort to keep this from the people of Utah."
Pacificorp evidently saw things differently and alerted its employees and retirees who had contact with a substation that was part of last year's cleanup.
"We didn't believe there was a risk to anyone's health," says company spokesman Dave Eskelsen. "But we felt it was responsible of the company to make the notification to employees [who had worked there] and offer them health screening if they wanted one."
It's closer to the approach federal health officials have taken with vermiculite plants elsewhere.
In Beltsville, Md., in 2003, the Agency for Toxic Substances issued a sweeping public health warning - an agency spokesman called the risks "a ticking time bomb inside your chest" - to workers and anyone who lived or worked within a mile of a local vermiculite plant during its 25 years of operation. And, in New Jersey, the agency offered free health screenings last summer to former plant workers and possibly their family members.
Dianne Nielson, director of Utah's Department of Environmental Quality, takes issue with the suggestion the vermiculite cleanups were kept "low-key." Some cleanups don't generate press releases, she says.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry prioritizes plants where more than 100,000 tons of vermiculite were processed, Nielson points out, and the Salt Lake City plants fell under the threshold.
Meanwhile, the problem of exposure is being taken seriously. An outreach program is being developed to identify vermiculite workers and others at risk.
"There is work under way to get information out to people," she says.
Air of resignation: Ralph Blevins shrugs off this sort of controversy.
He has resigned himself to the poor prognosis that always comes with asbestosis: It will get worse until he gets lung cancer or his lungs just stop working.
He expects no money from the asbestos lawsuit he has filed because of the attorney fees and, anyhow, the company's bankrupt. What does get him going is how he spent five years and over $30,000 before he learned the correct diagnosis when there were people who knew about Zonolite all along.
"I sure would have saved a lot of money."