After a year in which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was sharply criticized and forced to reverse course for failing to require standard clean-up procedures in asbestos abatement situations in Ft. Worth and St. Louis, the Bush Administration signaled a lack of concern by appointing Granta Nakayama last month to lead the agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Nakayama, a specialist in environmental law, is a partner in the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis, LLP – the same firm that is defending W.R. Grace & Co. against criminal charges arising from asbestos exposures that occurred at its mine and processing facility in Libby, Montana. The firm also represents Grace in bankruptcy court, a proceeding arising out of the thousands of lawsuits that have been filed against the company.
Spokespersons for both the law firm and the EPA discounted the association, saying that Grace was not one of Nakayama’s clients at the firm and he did not work on the corporation’s legal matters. Thomas Skinner, the EPA’s acting enforcement chief, said Nakayama would avoid any conflicts by recusing himself in matters that the law firm has handled over the year. The firm’s website touts its strong orientation to litigation in defending cases alleging corporate malfeasance with regard to worker or consumer interests.
Among the asbestos victims in Libby and elsewhere across the country are a large number of Laborers and their family members. Also, Laborers often are employed by companies that remove asbestos from buildings. Reacting to Nakayama’s appointment, LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan says, “In St. Louis and Ft. Worth, we saw how the EPA will try to skirt its own asbestos clean-up regulations. Now, a corporate attorney will direct the agency’s enforcement activity. This is bound to have a chilling effect, particularly in those investigations that involve Grace & Company. Regulatory enforcement is on shaky ground. Everyone should be more vigilant.”