In the largest Superfund cleanup settlement ever, W.R. Grace has agreed to pay $250 million to cover government investigation and cleanup costs associated with the asbestos-laden ore the company mined in Libby, Montana.

EPA has already spent roughly $168 million removing asbestos-contaminated soils and other dangerous materials, EPA Emergency Coordinator Paul Peronard told the Missoulian. He estimates that it will take another $175 million to get to the point where cleanup efforts are considered a success – which doesn’t mean that the town will be entirely clean. EPA cleanup efforts started in 2000, and the agency filed suit against W.R. Grace in 2001 to recover costs. The company was already facing thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits, and filed for bankruptcy.

Andrew Schneider, who first drew national attention to Libby’s plight in a series of Seattle P-I articles, points out that W.R. Grace still faces a criminal trial:

Grace’s problems are far from over. On Feb. 7, 2006, on the steps of the county courthouse in Missoula, Mont., U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer announced a 10-count criminal indictment against seven senior current and former Grace officials alleging conspiracy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud for endangering the people of Libby by concealing the well-documented hazards of the tremolite asbestos. The trial has been postponed three times as Grace challenges a variety of issues and the Justice Department said it has yet to be rescheduled.

The court decree settles a bankruptcy claim brought by the federal government to recover money for past and future costs of cleanup of contaminated schools, homes and businesses in Libby. In December, the Justice Department reported that Grace agreed to pay $34 million to cleanup 32 of scores of contaminated sites throughout North America where the company processed its vermiculite, which was sold for attic and wall insulation and lawn products.

The insulation, Zonolite, has been shown by the government to be heavily contaminated with asbestos and is still in 15 to 35 million homes in the U.S. and countless more in Canada and elsewhere.

Senator Max Baucus of Montana had this to say:

W.R. Grace knowingly poisoned the people of Libby and devastated an entire town. $250 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the destruction and pain our neighbors in Libby have been through. EPA has spent approximately $120 million on Libby already and they still can’t tell us how clean is clean.

W.R. Grace’s payment is indeed small compared to the destruction and pain they’ve caused – and it may also seem small to companies who are deciding whether or not to stop selling a product that they’ve realized is dangerous. In the Grace litigation, it’s not just the fate of Libby residents at stake, but the fate of people who will be (or are already) exposed to the next asbestos.