Asbestos companies and mines have a long and notorious history, but none can rival the notoriety of W.R. Grace & Company. W.R. Grace & Co. was founded in Peru in 1854, although they were based much farther away in Maryland. Initially they traded in fertilizer, before diversifying to other products such as fabrics and machinery. They later relocated to New York in 1865 and began a triangular trade with Europe and South America.
The company continued to grow until 1963, when it purchased the Zonolite insulation company, which also operated a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, as well as two processing areas in the same location. Unknown to the owners at the time, this acquisition would eventually force their business to go bankrupt due to the amount of health damage caused to workers in their mine, the town of Libby and the rest of the United States that received this insulation.
The Collapse of Libby, Montana
By the mid-1990s, the company was a powerhouse of the business world, but it was also at this time that it began to receive a number of lawsuits from different individuals who had worked in the facilities at Libby. These were due to the fact that the vermiculite mine was laced with asbestos, which was not known to produce negative effects on health until the 1970s. However, by the 1990s, more and more individuals were becoming aware of the dangers associated with exposure to asbestos. Diseases such as lung cancer, mesothelioma and asbestosis were common among those who had inhaled the substance in the workplace.
Although many of those filing lawsuits had not worked at the mine for many years, the onset of the illnesses had only just begun, and was a direct result of the exposure employees received from working in the Libby, Montana. Asbestos-related diseases are characterized by a long latency period where the fibers slowly affect the internal tissues of sufferers. However, it was not just those that worked in the mines who began to file lawsuits. Many individuals who had purchased the insulation products manufactured by the company had also contracted asbestos-related illnesses. By 2001, the company was forced into bankruptcy under the pressure of 250,000 separate lawsuits that had been filed against them from all around the country.
Charges Against W.R. Grace
It wasn’t until 2005 that the company began to face criminal proceedings regarding their continued distribution of asbestos-laden products in the 1990s, even in the face of mounting evidence against their safety. Seven of their main members of staff were all charged with concealing information related to this case or any other knowledge the company had regarding the potential health risks of their products. Once this information was discovered, it became apparent that many senior employees had been aware of health problems caused by the mine as far back as the 1970s.
In 2008, W. R. Grace agreed to contribute $250 million for the environmental cleanup of Libby, Montana. After filing for bankruptcy protection in 2001, the company reached a civil settlement in 2008 to pay $3 billion to asbestos victims. The criminal proceedings judgment for W.R. Grace was not made until 2009, when the company was acquitted of the charges against them. This ruling was due in part to the prosecution being unable to prove the company had knowingly put members of their staff at risk. Despite the company’s legal troubles, cleanup contributions and negative publicity surrounding the town of Libby, W.R. Grace has managed to stay afloat as a company, growing its interests in new technologies in locations as far away as Shanghai and Moscow.