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EPA nominee's law firm represents Grace

| June 29, 2005 12:00 AM

President Bush's nominee for the position of EPA's chief of enforcement is partner in a law firm defending W.R. Grace in criminal charges stemming from its former Libby vermiculite mining operations.

Granta Nakayama, a partner in the Washington, D.C., firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, has been nominated to head the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, according to a news story published Saturday in the Baltimore Sun.

According to the law firm's website, Kirkland represented Grace in its bankruptcy case filed in 2001. And three Kirkland attorneys are listed in federal district court records in Missoula as representing the company against criminal charges.

"It's either total ignorance or arrogance and I don't think it's ignorance," said Gayla Benefield, an asbestos victim and advocate for other victims resulting from Grace mining asbestos contaminated vermiculite near Libby.

"I think it's arrogance especially with the pending criminal trial," she continued. "I won't blame Grace for this one, it's strictly the administration."

The appointment must be approved by the Senate.

A Kirkland spokesmen said Nakayama was not involved in either the Grace bankruptcy or the criminal case, reported the Sun.

The newspaper reported EPA representatives as saying that Nakayama will most likely sign a recusal letter saying he's to have nothing to do with either Grace or other matters involving the law firm and the federal agency.

"This is not good, not good for anybody," Benefield said. "This is a guy who has defended companies against environmental charges. This gives any company free rein to do what they want."

Grace and seven current or former officials were charged in February in federal court with charges including conspiracy, Clean Air Act violations and wire fraud. According to the indictments, company officials tried to conceal information about the health risks associated with its vermiculite mining and distribution as far back as the 1970s. The indicment estimates that 1,200 Libby-area residents have suffered an asbestos-related abnormlity associated with Grace's operations.

Kirkland & Ellis lawyers William Jackson, a partner in the firm, Laurence Urgenson, another partner, and Tyler Mace, an associate, are listed as three of the the seven attorneys representing W.R. Grace in the criminal case with 19 other attorneys representing the seven present and former Grace employees.

In February, U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer called the situation in Libby "a human and environmental tragedy" and pledged to hold Grace and its executives responsible.

Benefield remains optimistic that Montana's congressional delegation won't allow the nomination to go unchallenged.

"This just shows you how big government is and that they are capable of anything," she said. "I think people must speak out on this. People can change it."