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Opportunity knocks in Libby for W.R. Grace

by Bruce Vincent
| May 28, 2009 12:00 AM

Society can regulate business, but cannot legislate a social conscience for business – that has to come from within the individuals running a company.

W.R. Grace individuals were found innocent recently in the court of law. Now we get to see if those individuals can display a corporate social conscience. If they do have one, now is the time for it to weigh in.

In my travels around the country, I am consistently hit with questions about the issue that Libby is now famous for – asbestos and W.R. Grace. Like many in our town, I struggle to find answers. When I am asked “Do I have to wear a mask when I come visit?” – I tell folks, no. However, when I am asked if we know when we will be “clean” I am forced to tell them that nearly a decade after this issue came to the front page around the nation, we have not really been told what “clean” is.

Because of all of the uncertainty, I usually avoid making remarks in the media. The W.R. Grace story is nothing but pain at home and nothing but front page fodder elsewhere and the media outside of Libby can take pieces of whole conversations and turn them into quotes that misstate what people feel.

For instance, my son, Vance, stated that we should all be happy that we live in a country where we are innocent until proven guilty and his comments were twisted in a story to make it sound like he was “happy” about the verdict.

Everyone I know in our town, including Vance, felt that if they had been found guilty, they needed to go to jail. But outside media likes to promote conflict, and from day one this story has been a doosy for them.  I’ve got another doosy for them, only this time it will be good news – if Grace will step up.

There is plenty of blame to go around with this issue. W.R. Grace, who for years abandoned our community and the impacted individuals and families to their attorneys and accountants, are among the culpable along with the State of Montana, the EPA and others. They all have a responsibility to assist in the care of the afflicted and the cleaning and healing of our community.  

The state legislature has ponied up with cash for the CARD clinic, the EPA is now among the largest employers in town trying to clean up the mess, now Grace needs to prove that they, too, are serious about helping until help is no longer needed. This help should be beyond that required by a judge  or federal agency – it should be driven to reality by the social conscience of the individuals within Grace who can make it happen. Grace was rightfully prepared to go to the mat for their executives – now they need to go to the mat for our town. 

Now that the big trial is over, I have a suggestion for W.R. Grace. With criminal charges dropped from most of the Grace officials, they have a chance to showcase a social conscience. The money they would have spent on attorneys in defense appeals could now be spent on the people in this town to assure them that they will not be left behind … again.

They could take the now available legal fees and use it as seed money for a trust for the impacted families and the community. Those millions of dollars in a Libby Community Trust would yield interest payments that could help those afflicted and maybe help us jump start an economic recovery plan for use when folks realize it is safe to locate in our beautiful valley. The outside media loves to use our agony to sell their papers, think of the news story this would bring!

I’ve been at the bedside of dying fiends from this tragedy. It is real, it is painful and all of the participating parties need to help in the healing until it is over. The Grace officials may not be criminally liable, but they are liable. They may have won in the court of law, now they need to try to win in the court of public opinion.

There is no time better than today to begin that campaign – right here at ground zero.

(Bruce Vincent is a third-generation logger and part of the management team at Environomics. He has authored various articles for major publications and is a well-known speaker on rural community empowerment).