Years Operated: 1854-present
Headquarters: Columbia, MD
Business: Manufacturer of specialty chemicals and materials
Asbestos Trust: Yes
Bankruptcy Status: Filed in 2001; emerged in 2014
Amount in Trust: About $1.8 billion by 2034
Year Created: 2008
W.R. Grace & Co. is associated with the one of the largest asbestos contaminations in American history. The company purchased vermiculite asbestos mines and a processing mill in Libby, Montana, in 1963 and operated them until 1990. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that is mined from raw ore deposits in a method very similar to asbestos mining.
Employing up to 200 people, Grace & Co. produced up to 200,000 tons of vermiculite a year. Its Zonolite Mountain mine was shut down in 1990 after large quantities of airborne asbestos fibers were discovered. From that discovery began a steady stream of asbestos-related lawsuits against W.R. Grace.
The vermiculite found in the mines was used for a variety of common construction projects. Unfortunately, vermiculite mines were often a source of asbestos fibers, which posed a health hazard to anyone working or living nearby. The life expectancy of many residents began to be severely compromised.
More than 400 of Libby's residents died from exposure to the asbestos in the Grace mines, and at least half of the town's population of 3,000 is currently ill. Grace has faced more than 250,000 asbestos-related lawsuits, and it declared bankruptcy in 2001.
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Many of the asbestos-containing products manufactured by Grace were intended for use in the construction industry. Aside from specialty building materials, the asbestos-containing products manufactured by the company also included fireproofing materials, plaster, and roofing and deck materials, as well as additives for concrete and cement.
Many of the products the company manufactured were destined to be exported, taking advantage of the company’s wide-ranging interests around the globe.
Grace founded, bought and sold a number of businesses, ranging from banks, western apparel outlets, wholesale book distributors, airlines and restaurants. In 1865, company founder William Grace established a steamship line in Peru to trade guano (used in fertilizer and gunpowder) with the Americas before moving to New York. In New York, Grace established shipping routes that linked Europe, New York and South America in the trading of fabric, fertilizer, machinery and other products. The 20th century was a period of tremendous diversification for Grace.
Many of the asbestos-related lawsuits Grace faced in the 1990s involved plaintiffs who worked or lived at or near the Libby vermiculite mine. Other suits were filed by construction workers and homeowners who contracted asbestos-related diseases after exposure to W.R. Grace’s popular Zonolite insulation or other asbestos-containing products.
Criminal proceedings against W.R. Grace & Co. began in 2001, and the case is now considered one of the largest asbestos-related environmental cleanup lawsuits in the country. The U.S. government charged the company and seven of its top executives with concealing information about ongoing health problems caused by exposure to their asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mine in Libby.
Records obtained from the company revealed that as far back as the 1970s executives had been aware that the asbestos found in the vermiculite mine was not only sickening employees, but also the residents of the nearby community. Grace was additionally charged with obstructing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleanup efforts at the site.
As a result of the 2009 trial, W.R. Grace & Co. was ordered to pay the U.S. government more than $54 million to cover cleanup costs related to the vermiculite mine that Grace operated near Libby. Now a designated Superfund site, the mine disturbed a vast area of asbestos that contaminated individual residences, schools and businesses in the town of Libby, as well as the water and soil in the area. More than $5 million of the fine was earmarked for medical testing and mortality analyses of Libby residents who had perished after mining operations began.
In June 2009, the EPA declared a Public Health Emergency in the towns of Libby and Troy, Montana. Incidence of asbestosis among the residents of these small communities was “staggeringly higher than the national average for the period from 1979-1998,” according to the EPA.
Grace’s reorganization plan was confirmed in 2011.
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