W. R. Grace Trial Begins

On February 23, 2009, the opening salvo in the infamous W. R. Grace asbestos trial has lawyers for both sides presenting opening statements in what is anticipated to be a three-month exposé of corporate criminal conduct with regard to asbestos.

The subject of the suit is the Libby vermiculite mine in Montana, which operated from 1963 to 1990, killing more than 250 people and damaging the health of 2,000 others.

W. R. Grace & Co., the Columbia-based chemical manufacturer, denies the allegations, saying that its Libby Mine managers did, in fact, attempt to constantly improve working conditions and safety measures in the mine. Opposing attorneys challenge that assertion based on the health records of former miners, in particular the Benefield family, 40 of whom have asbestos-related illnesses even though many never worked in the mine.

W. R. Grace and five mine managers are being sued for what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is calling "the most horrific environmental disaster in this country's history". In 2008, W. R. Grace – which is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy provisions – agreed to pay $250 million when the former mine was designated an EPA Superfund Site.

For decades, W.R. Grace was among the biggest employers in the small town of Libby, about 40 miles from Canada. At one time, the mine at Vermiculite Mountain produced 80 percent of the world’s supply of that ore, under conditions which put the 3,000 residents at risk.

Vermiculite is used in insulation, as an absorbent in cat litter and some floor cleaners, as a texturizer in paint, in brake linings and for fiberglass reinforcement, and as a soil conditioner.

When the Libby Mine was still operating, contamination was spread via the clothing of workers, dust from the plant, and the vermiculite company owners gave Libby residents which was used as fill for the high school athletic field, an outdoor skating rink, and as a soil conditioner for their flower and vegetable gardens, thus spreading asbestos contamination.

Vermiculite is essentially a member of the phyllosilicate group of minerals. Asbestos, a naturally-occurring magnesium silicate, is frequently laced through formations of vermiculite deposited in the Triassic Period. Pure vermiculite is harmless, but laced with the particularly harmful form of asbestos found at Vermiculite Mountain, it can cause lung cancer, cancer of the pharynx, cancer of the esophagus, stomach cancer, colon cancer, cancer of the rectum, asbestosis and mesothelioma, a particularly lethal form of lung cancer, can lie dormant for decades, but when it finally manifests the patient commonly dies with a year or two.

In 2005, the federal government handed down an indictment charging that W. R. Grace actually commissioned a series of studies – at the instigation of local physician Dr. Richard Irons – on the dangers its mine, and mining practices, presented, but kept the negative results under wraps.

Correspondence between W. R. Grace’s health and safety officer, Henry A. Eschenbach, and mining managers makes the depth of the corruption evident. In one memo, Eschenbach wrote: "Irons is turning the screw. ... We either play the game his way or he's going to blow the whistle”, while in another he admitted: "Our major problem is death from respiratory cancer. This is no surprise."

The federal indictment named W. R. Grace and seven former employees as defendants, charging each with conspiracy, Clean Air Act violations, wire fraud and obstruction of justice. Together, the charges carry penalties and prison sentences of several hundred million dollars and 70 years of confinement.

Among those cited are: Robert Walsh, former senior vice president; Eschenbach; Jack W. Wolter, former vice president; William J. McCaig, former mine manager; and Robert J. Bettacchi, former mining general manager. O. Mario Favorito, a former company lawyer, will be tried separately, and Alan R. Stringer, another former general manager, is deceased.

W. R. Grace’s bankruptcy proceedings were triggered, according to company officials, by more than 110,000 asbestos-related lawsuits, most unrelated to the Vermiculite Mountain enterprise. The company agreed in 2008 to dedicate another $3 billion to compensate consumers suffering from asbestos illnesses as a result of its products. All this follows on the heels of the 1986 settlement for contamination of groundwater in Woburn, Massachusetts, for which the company paid $8 million.

With a reported net income (2008) of $121.5 million, on gross sales of $3.32 billion, this latest legal assault may finally put W. R. Grace in the ranks of companies defunct as a result of the legacy costs of their shoddy, underhanded practices. We can only hope.

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