President Bush has nominated Granta Nakayama, a partner in a law firm whose clients include W.R. Grace, BP, Dow Chemical and DuPont, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency’s far-flung enforcement division.
Selecting a lawyer and an engineer with one of the nation’s largest corporate law firms, whose clients have deep and occasionally controversial relations with the EPA, triggered concerns that Nakayama would not be able to aggressively enforce environmental laws.
Foremost among those concerns is W.R. Grace, which is under federal criminal indictment on charges related to the operation of its vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont. Hundreds of workers and Libby residents contracted lethal asbestos-related disease – a situation that gained national attention after a Seattle Post-Intelligencer series in 1999.
A follow-up health screening in Libby showed that nearly 2,000 residents of the tiny Montana town have lung abnormalities that could herald asbestos-related disease.
Vermiculite ore from the Libby mine was sent around the country for processing, and asbestos-related disease followed its path. Between 15 million and 35 million homes nationwide have asbestos-tainted vermiculite insulation from Libby in attics and walls.
The trial, which is expected to begin in September, could result in prison sentences against seven current and former Grace executives. The Justice Department alleges that Grace executives knew about asbestos-related dangers in Libby but concealed those dangers from its workers, government regulators and the public.
The EPA has since declared Libby a Superfund site. In a 2003 court decision, Grace was ordered to pay the EPA $54 million in cleanup costs.
Despite the association of law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP with Grace, a spokesman said Nakayama would have no conflict if confirmed for the assistant administrator’s position.