MISSOULA, MONTANA – WR Grace, best know for its role in polluting the wells in Woburn which was the basis for both the book and the movie, A Civil Action, is facing a trial in Montana for contaminating an entire town with asbestos.
In addition to Woburn, Grace has left other toxic sites in Massachusetts, including Cambridge ,Acton, and Concord.
Despite annual sales of asbestos in excess of $1.4 Billion, Grace filed for bankrupcy protection in 2001 to insulate itself from lawsuits mainly from the contamination of a vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana that the firm owned.
A decade earlier, reporters from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer started running an enterprise series on the history of Grace’s questionable activities. A link to the newspaper’s coverage is available here (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/uncivilaction/)
In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice began criminal proceedings against Grace. The department announced that a grand jury in Montana indicted W.R. Grace and seven current and former Grace executives for knowingly endangering residents of Libby and concealing information about the health effects of its asbestos mining operations.
According to the indictment, W. R. Grace and its executives, as far back as the 1970s, attempted to conceal information about the adverse health effects of the company’s vermiculite mining operations and distribution of vermiculite in the Libby community
The defendants are also accused of obstructing the government’s cleanup efforts and wire fraud. To date, according to the indictment, approximately 1,200 residents of Libby area have been identified as suffering from some kind of asbestos-related abnormality.
The contamination, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called “the most horrific environmental disaster in this country’s history,” is believed to have killed at least 250 people and sickened more than 2,000. W.R. Grace, which is working through a Chapter 11 reorganization, agreed last year to pay $250 million – the most ever for a Superfund site – for the cleanup.
In the 2006 campaign for U.S. Senate, progressive John Tester defeated Republican Conrad Burns. Burns had supported legislation that would have shielded Grace and other asbestos manufacturers from liability.
Nonetheless, legal wrangling by Grace attorneys has delayed the trial. The delay was beneficial to Grace as a number of the KNOWN residents of Libby stricken with asbestos or similiar diseases has shrunk as many of them have died without ever getting their day in court.
“Folks in Libby have suffered long enough,” Tester, D-Mont., told The Associated Press. “It’s well past time for the wheels of justice to get rolling.”
FULL DISCLOSURE: My wife is originally from Woburn. One of her cousins was one of the plaintiffs in that case. I am also aware that Grace has tried to silence its critics by threatening libel suits. I say good luck with that.
For decades, W.R. Grace was among the biggest employers in Libby, a town of fewer than 3,000 about 40 miles from the Canadian border. Once, the mine at Vermiculite Mountain produced 80percent of the world’s supply of the ore, which has been used in such consumer products as insulation, potting soil and cat litter. The company gave residents vermiculite to use as fill for the high school ball fields, as the foundation for an outdoor skating rink, and as a growth medium for vegetable and flower gardens.
But the material was laced with asbestos, a naturally occurring magnesium silicate that can cause asbestosis, a scarring of the lungs; mesothelioma, a tumor of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavities; and lung cancer. Asbestos has been banned from most products since 1989.
The form found in Libby is particularly harmful; its long, slender fibers are able to penetrate deep into the human body and stay for decades. As the vermiculite was mined and processed, the deadly asbestos spread through the community – carried in the clothes that workers wore home and in the dust that spewed from the plant and settled over the town.
The axiom, it isn’t the crime but the cover-up that gets you pinched is certainly true in Libby.
In an indictment issued in 2005, the federal government alleges that W.R. Grace commissioned a series of studies in the 1970s and 1980s that revealed the hazards to which it was exposing workers and neighbors, but kept them quiet. When a local physician, Dr. Richard Irons, proposed in 1979 that the company study mineworkers’ health, according to the indictment, company health and safety official Henry A. Eschenbach wrote in an internal memo that “Irons is turning the screw. … We either play the game his way or he’s going to blow the whistle.”
In recent years, Grace has mounted a publicity effort, touting all the things it has done for Libby. That sounds nice, but they did the same thing a decade ago when A Civil Action was released too, attempting to whitewash history.
The indictment named the company and seven former employees as co-defendants. Each was charged with conspiracy, violations of the Clean Air Act, wire fraud and obstruction of justice, charges that together carry prison sentences of up to 70 years and fines totaling millions of dollars. W.R. Grace could face hundreds of millions of dollars in fines.