W.R. Grace, today known as Grace, made asbestos products and mined and distributed vermiculite contaminated with asbestos. The company went through major financial difficulties after facing thousands of lawsuits. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2014 and funded a trust with billions of dollars to compensate asbestos and mesothelioma victims.
W.R. Grace History and Asbestos
W.R. Grace & Company was founded in 1854 by William Russell Grace. The company originally focused on fertilizer and machinery production.
- In 1865, the company headquarters moved to New York City. It became officially chartered in 1872 and was incorporated in 1895 (or 1899, depending on the source). William Grace also served as the mayor of New York for two terms and accepted the Statue of Liberty when it was given as a gift by France.
- Over the years, the company had its hands in many different industries, expanding rapidly and diversifying its product and services. It accomplished this by acquiring other companies. For example, W.R. Grace operated passenger ships for a period of time and even established what would later become the Marine Midland Bank.
- In the 1950s, W.R. Grace acquired the companies that would get it into the chemical, catalyst, construction, and silica industries. These companies were Davison Chemical Company and Dewey & Almy Chemical Company.
- In 1963, W.R. Grace acquired Zonolite insulation, a product made with asbestos and vermiculite. The company also operated vermiculite mines, including the mine in Libby, Montana. It was discovered too late that the Libby mine was contaminated with asbestos.
- Vermiculite from that mine went into Zonolite products and was processed in facilities around the country. Although residents of Libby, Montana, suffered the most from the asbestos, people working in and living near Zonolite factories were also affected.
- The overwhelming legal costs that resulted from that asbestos exposure led W.R. Grace to file for bankruptcy in 2001. The company did not emerge from bankruptcy until 2014, making it one of the longest bankruptcies in American corporate history.
- The WRG Asbestos PI Trust opened in 2014 to compensate victims. In 2023, W. R. Grace finally completed a settlement with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for the damage done to the area in and around Libby, Montana.
Today, W.R. Grace is known as Grace. It makes specialty chemicals and materials and was acquired by Standard Industries Holdings in 2021.
How Did W.R. Grace Use Asbestos?
W.R. Grace was a large company that operated in a variety of industries. It used asbestos in many of its products. These were largely construction materials that came into the company through acquisitions.
Asbestos was once commonly used in construction products because of its abundance, low cost, and ability to insulate and seal. Many companies involved in construction materials, like W.R. Grace, used asbestos for decades.
W.R. Grace was also involved with asbestos through its Libby, Montana, vermiculite mine. The mine was contaminated with asbestos and distributed the product all over the country. The asbestos-contaminated vermiculite went to processing facilities and into Zonolite products.
W.R. Grace Asbestos Products
By acquiring Zonolite, W.R. Grace took on liability for the company’s asbestos use, but the company also continued making products with asbestos and mining contaminated vermiculite.
Some of the known W.R. Grace products that contained asbestos are:
- Zonolite cement
- Zonolite plaster
- Zonolite fireproofing
- Zonolite insulation
- Zonolite spray surfacer
- Zonolite Spray-Insulation and Spra-Tex
- Zono-Coustic acoustical materials
- Hi Sorb Plater
- Gun Coat Spray Surfacer
Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure Because of W.R. Grace
Exposure to asbestos from W.R. Grace occurred when workers handled asbestos in factories. Exposure also occurred in other industries that used Zonolite products.
Asbestos Exposure in Libby, Montana
However, the vermiculite mining at Libby, Montana, caused the most exposure and harm. Libby is a small town, and the Zonolite mine employed many residents.
For three decades, the mine produced hundreds of thousands of tons of vermiculite, all laced with deadly asbestos. Vermiculite itself is not harmful, but asbestos fibers in it harmed workers and residents of the town, leading to hundreds of asbestos-related deaths.
Asbestos is dangerous because of its sharp, microscopic fibers. As the vermiculite was mined, processed, packaged, and shipped, these small asbestos fibers came loose and contaminated nearby air, soil, and water.
People in the area then inhaled and ingested the fibers, which resulted in many people developing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. In Libby alone, experts have attributed at least 400 deaths to asbestos contamination.
Workers in Vermiculite Processing Facilities
In addition to the Libby mine, workers in Zonolite factories were also put at risk of asbestos exposure. The mine shipped the vermiculite to numerous processing plants where workers handled the contaminated mineral during the manufacturing process. Residents living near these facilities were also put at risk of exposure.
W.R. Grace’s asbestos liability didn’t end with Libby and Zonolite facilities. Their asbestos construction materials exposed countless workers in the construction industry:
- HVAC workers
- Demolition workers
- Maintenance and repair workers
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
There have also been many cases of people being exposed to asbestos indirectly. Miners in Libby, Zonolite workers, and construction workers often came home with asbestos fibers on their clothing.
These fibers contaminated the home and put family members at risk of secondhand asbestos exposure and later illnesses.
W.R. Grace Superfund Sites
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) eventually declared the Libby, Montana site a Superfund site. As a result, the EPA has been working on the site since 2000. Although these actions have significantly reduced asbestos contamination, asbestos is still in the area.
Testing of the air shows asbestos levels are now 100,000 times lower than when the mine was in operation. Libby was not W.R. Grace’s only Superfund site. The EPA also listed its Acton, Massachusetts plant as badly contaminated and in need of cleanup.
Asbestos Lawsuits Against W.R. Grace
Illnesses caused by W.R. Grace mines, plants, and products led to numerous lawsuits from exposure victims. While many of these originated in Libby, there were also claims made by workers from other facilities and those that used Zonolite insulation.
Legal action also came from the government, which charged seven executives with hiding information about the harm asbestos was causing in Libby.
Evidence shows the executives knew about asbestos in the vermiculite as early as the 1970s, but the company did not shut down the mine until 1990. The government ordered W.R. Grace to pay for cleanup efforts at the site. This included $250 million paid to the EPA in 2008.
Additionally, W.R. Grace was expected to pay for cleanup at various vermiculite processing facilities around the country. These included locations in New York, Georgia, Texas, Massachusetts, and Tennessee.
W.R. Grace also faced legal action from the state of Montana for the damage caused in the Libby area. After years of negotiation, the company finally settled with the Montana DEQ. The settlement included $18.5 million from W.R. Grace for damage to natural resources.
In the settlement, the company also agreed to provide financial support for the Kootenai Development Impoundment Dam for 100 years.
W.R. Grace Bankruptcy and Asbestos Trust
After facing over 250,000 claims and lawsuits over asbestos exposure, W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. Just before filing, the company transferred a few billion dollars to subsidiaries to protect money from asbestos claims.
The Department of Justice declared the action fraudulent and ordered $1 billion be returned to the company and considered assets in the bankruptcy process. In 2008 the company agreed to set aside $1.8 billion for settling asbestos cases.
W.R. Grace didn’t emerge from bankruptcy until 2014, ending one of the longest bankruptcy periods in history. As part of the reorganization, the company created an asbestos trust to fund future asbestos-related claims.
W.R. Grace Asbestos Trust
Called the WRG Asbestos Personal Injury Trust, it was funded with several billion dollars. The trust continues to settle with victims who come forward with diagnoses of asbestos-related illnesses.
The current payment percentage for the W.R. Grace Asbestos Trust is 35% for both expedited and individual reviews.
Zonolite Asbestos Trust
There is also trust to compensate certain homeowners with Zonolite insulation. The Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust provides funds to qualified individuals to compensate for the abatement of asbestos insulation.
W.R. Grace funded the Zonolite Trust when it emerged from bankruptcy. The trust currently reimburses 55% of abatement costs.
If You Were Exposed to W.R. Grace Asbestos
If you believe you were exposed to asbestos through the W.R. Grace mine, vermiculite processing facilities, or construction products, contact a mesothelioma lawyer.
Don’t wait to reach out to an asbestos attorney. Most offer free initial consultations and provide advice. You also risk losing your opportunity to seek justice if you want. Statutes of limitations affect when you can take legal action.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.