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Minneapolis contamination rivals all but Libby for public impact

| August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

MISSOULA — W.R. Grace shipped contaminated vermiculite ore to communities across the country for decades, but few places received as much as northeast Minneapolis.

The Grace facility there processed Libby ore into vermiculite products from 1938 until 1989. As in Libby, plant workers, their families and local residents all were contaminated. And as in Libby, news of the tragedy came via newspaper articles.

"It didn't hit us in the face until 2000 when the Star-Tribune published a story and photos of plant workers who had died of mesothelioma," said Rita Messing of the Minnesota Department of Health.

She spoke July 28 during an asbestos conference at the University of Montana called "Directions and Needs in Asbestos Research: New Insights." The two-day event sponsored by the university's Center for Environmental Health Sciences drew top researchers and health officials nationwide.

After Minnesota's largest daily newspaper broke the Minneapolis story, a study was undertaken by the Department of Health in cooperation with the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The goal was to interview as many people who lived in the area from 1938 through 2001, or who had direct contact with the processing waste.

More than 6,000 people were interviewed about frequency and duration of their exposures via ambient air, as well as contact with waste materials.

The results won't be surprising to anyone familiar with Libby's past.

Not only were workers and their family members contaminated, but local residents used processing waste on driveways and gardens. During her presentation, Messing showed a slide of children playing on top of a large pile of contaminated ore. A nearby sign read, "Free crushed rock."

One person interviewed during the study recalled her childhood by saying, "We played in it just like you would play in a large sandbox," according to Messing. "The ore was warm, so it was a popular place to play in the winter."

"Minneapolis residents tend to be frugal," said Messing, adding that people also used the ore for kitty litter and pet aquariums.

The Minnesota community was split over the issue, Messing said. Some people were resentful of the community study because of its negative connotations, she said, but others were very cooperative.

The study concluded that residents living in the immediate vicinity of the facility, Western Mills, were exposed to what Messing called "high ambient air levels" of asbestos.

"This is right near where people live," Messing said. "There's a high school and elementary school nearby. Dust was visible in the air up to two blocks from the plant."

Staff members working on the study along with federal Environmental Protection Agency inspectors discovered visible asbestos contamination on more than 260 residences, which were eventually cleaned by the EPA.

In short, Messing said, the investigation showed that people were exposed in the same ways as those living in and near Libby.

"There is an excess of mesothelioma in northeast Minneapolis," she said.