Feds investigate deadly ore shipped to Dallas
By Lisa Falkenberg, Associated Press
DALLAS - After dark, the silver dust fell on Bedford Street like spilled glitter. It clung to window sills, the black habits of neighborhood nuns and, at least once, the bare arms of Concepcion Hernandez's sister.
Hernandez, 79, remembers how her sister refused to wash it off, insisting on wearing it to a meeting with attorneys and city leaders as evidence that nearby factories, including a lead smelter and asbestos plant, were poisoning her neighborhood.
Two decades later, the smelter and the dust are gone. But so are Hernandez's sister and most of her longtime neighbors - many dying of cancer and heart attacks before their time, Hernandez says. Residents protested until the smelter closed in 1984, but they never found out what was in the dust, how dangerous it was or who was responsible for it.
An investigation by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry may yield answers. Hernandez's neighborhood is one of 28 sites nationwide that received high volumes of dangerous vermiculite ore from an asbestos-tainted mine in Libby, Mont., owned by W.R. Grace and Co.
Grace and seven executives were indicted this year on charges that they conspired to hide asbestos contamination at the Libby mine, which prosecutors said sickened more than 1,200 people.
Grace shipped the ore by rail to more than 200 plants across the country. For 40 years, starting in the early 1950s, Grace shipped an estimated 390,000 tons to a processing plant operated by Texas Vermiculite Company in Dallas.
The plant processed ore for potting soil, insulation, concrete and fireproofing spray, then belched the byproduct: a fine, shimmering dust contaminated with asbestos.
"In the evenings, when they thought the people were in their homes, they would open their vents and let all the dust out," said Hernandez, who still lives on Bedford Street with her husband of 54 years, Alejandro. "It looked like glitter to us because you could see something shining coming down in the smoke."
Federal investigators are trying to determine how many former plant workers and family members were exposed to the dust in an attempt to alert them to the health risks.
The agency also is searching Texas health department data for elevated rates in the Dallas area of lung cancer, mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis, a potentially fatal breathing disorder that can lead to complications such as pulmonary hypertension, enlarged heart and heart failure.
"We're trying to make sure there are no other Libby, Montanas out there," said Kevin Horton, an agency epidemiologist.
Dallas wasn't the only Texas city to receive the ore. Grace sent more than 675,000 tons to 24 Texas plants over three decades, including Houston, which received an estimated 193,000 tons, and San Antonio, which received 103,000 tons, according to an analysis by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
Richard Wiles, vice president of the research group, said the federal investigation is long overdue and can't accurately gauge the harm Grace caused.
"If it took us 50 years to look at Libby, is it any surprise that we haven't looked at all the hundreds of places where they shipped this stuff?" Wiles said. "The feds' and the industry's strategy is if we wait long enough, everybody who's going to die of asbestos disease will die and then we're done."
A Grace spokeswoman in Maryland declined comment and referred questions to other representatives, who did not immediately comment.
Dallas was chosen for the investigation in part because it was one of 80 so-called exfoliation plants. Workers did the dangerous job of heating the ore until it expanded and popped like popcorn, creating a lightweight, water-absorbent nugget that was like gold to agriculture and construction industries.
The process released the most deadly form of asbestos: tremolite, a spear-shaped fiber that can puncture lungs and cause cancer.
"People who worked in there were never told there was a potential health hazard in the tremolite," said Stephen Sheeran, who worked in sales for Grace for 22 years in Michigan and Dallas.
The plant was highly profitable, Sheeran said, and the products sold as quickly as workers could churn them out. Over the years hundreds of laborers, mostly immigrants and black people, worked at the plant, investigators say.
Sheeran and others lost their jobs when the plant cut workers before closing in 1992. Grace, besieged by lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
Teresa Martinez, 72, said she and her neighbors protested for years to get rid of the lead smelter, owned by Dallas-based RSR Corp. But she said they didn't have the energy to fight Grace or other nearby chemical plants.
People just kept sweeping the dust into their dustpans and shaking it from clean shirts on the clothesline, said Julia Sepulveda, 77. She remembers scrubbing her floor every evening so her eight children wouldn't step in the dust.
"In the morning, I could see my footprints on the floor," she said.
One summer, she said, a singing group and a mariachi band hired for an annual church fund-raiser were forced to stop playing after the dust peppered their throats and kept horn players from hitting high notes.
Sepulveda said she has had nose cancer and three-fourths of a lung removed. She said her husband had mesothelioma removed from his back several years ago. But she isn't sure that was due to Grace, since her husband worked at neighboring GAF Materials Corp., a former asbestos producer.
The Grace site is now a vacant lot, surrounded by a high chain-link fence that guards only a for-sale sign. It was abandoned in the 1990s and declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Federal investigators said they hope to report their Dallas findings by summer. At the 10 sites completed so far, investigators found workers and their families were likely exposed to elevated levels of asbestos while the plants were operating, said Barbara Anderson, an ATSDR environmental health scientist. They also found that current asbestos levels in the air were below occupational standards for most sites, she said.
Horton, who is analyzing the Texas health statistics, said the study is difficult because asbestos-related diseases can take decades to appear. Health data is often limited: Texas could only supply six years of data, he said.
Martinez doesn't hold out much hope for moving.
"We've been here 60 years and we don't have any place to go," she said. "We're willing to sell if someone would give us a good price."