W.R. Grace is today known just as Grace, a company that manufactures specialty chemicals and materials. The company is headquartered in Columbia, Maryland but is truly a large international company with nearly 4,000 employees around the world, operations taking place in 30 countries, and customers in about 60 different countries.
Although successful now, Grace went through a rough patch after exposing thousands of people to asbestos through its vermiculite mining operations. Emerging in 2014 from a long bankruptcy, the company reorganized, started a trust with billions of dollars to compensate victims, and launched a second life for W.R. Grace, today’s Grace Catalysts Technologies and Grace Materials Technologies. Victims of mesothelioma and other asbestos illnesses are still filing claims with the company.
Today Grace is successful once again, despite the long odds that followed a 13-year bankruptcy period and backlash over the hundreds of people who died from the exposure to asbestos caused by its Libby, Montana vermiculite mine. The company avoided debt payments for 13 years and was able to take advantage of the growing energy sector to become profitable again. Grace now focuses on two main industries: catalysts and materials. This includes technologies for refining crude oil, polyolefin catalysts, and specialty silica gels.
The modern company operating today began as W.R. Grace & Company, founded in 1854 in Peru by William Russell Grace. The original focus of the company was fertilizer and machinery production. Company headquarters moved to New York City in 1865, it became officially chartered in 1872, and was incorporated either in 1895 or 1899 depending on the source. While operating the company, 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 and grew rapidly by diversifying its product and service offerings and acquiring other companies. For example, W.R. Grace operated passenger ships for a period of time and even established a bank that would later become the Marine Midland Bank. In the 1950s it acquired the companies that would get it into the chemical, catalyst, construction, and silica industries: Davison Chemical Company and Dewey & Almy Chemical Company.
In 1963 W.R. Grace made a fateful acquisition of Zonolite insulation, a product that was made with asbestos and vermiculite. The company also operated vermiculite mines, including the mine in Libby, Montana that was found too late to be contaminated with asbestos. That vermiculite was used in Zonolite, which was processed in facilities around the country. The people of Libby, Montana were most affected by the asbestos, but people working in Zonolite factories as well as people who lived near them were also affected. The overwhelming costs of lawsuits related to asbestos led W.R. Grace to file for bankruptcy in 2001. Not emerging again until 2014, W.R. Grace’s bankruptcy was one of the longest in American corporate history.
Asbestos Use by W.R. Grace
W.R. Grace was a large company that operated in a variety of industries, so it is known that it used asbestos in many of its industrial facilities and in several products, but it was the Zonolite products and mines that caused so much damage to workers and others. By acquiring Zonolite, W.R. Grace took on liability for the company’s use of asbestos but also continued making the products with asbestos and mining contaminated vermiculite.
Some of the known W.R. Grace products that contained asbestos are Zonolite cement, Zonolite Spra-Insulation and Spra-Tex, Zono-Coustic acoustical materials, Perltex, Perlcoustic, Hi Sorb Plater, Gun Coat Spray Surfacer, and Versakote. Asbestos was used in insulation and other construction products because it is highly effective at insulating. Vermiculite is also useful in insulation and many of the products were made with this harmful mineral, but it was often contaminated with asbestos fibers.
Exposure to asbestos from W.R. Grace occurred when workers handled the asbestos in factories and in other industries that used Zonolite products, but it was the vermiculite mining at Libby, Montana that caused the most exposure. Libby is a small town and many residents were employed by the Zonolite mine. For three decades it produced hundreds of thousands of tons of vermiculite, and all of it was laced with deadly asbestos. Vermiculite is not harmful, but the asbestos fibers in it harmed workers and residents of the town, leading to hundreds of asbestos-related deaths.
The harm in the asbestos contaminating the vermiculite is the tiny fibers. As the vermiculite was mined, processed, packaged, and shipped, these small fibers of asbestos came loose and contaminated nearby air, soil, and water. People in the area then inhaled and ingested the fibers and this can lead to mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer. Approximately 400 deaths in Libby of mine workers and residents have bene attributed to the asbestos contamination.
In addition to the Libby mine, workers in Zonolite facilities around the country were also put at risk of asbestos exposure. The mine shipped the vermiculite to numerous processing plants where workers handled the contaminated mineral to make insulation and other products. Residents that lived near these facilities were also put at risk of exposure. Finally there are the many workers in other industries, especially construction, who worked with Zonolite products and could have inhaled asbestos fibers.
The Libby, Montana site was eventually declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been working on the site since 2000. The actions have significantly reduced asbestos contamination, but the entire area still contains asbestos. Testing of the air in the town shows that levels are 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.
The illnesses that W.R. Grace mines, plants, and products caused in so many people led to a huge amount of lawsuits from victims of exposure. Many of these originated in Libby, but there were also claims made by workers from other facilities and those that worked with or used Zonolite insulation on the job or in the home. Legal action also came from the government which charged seven executives with hiding information about the harm that asbestos was causing in Libby. There is evidence that they knew about asbestos in the vermiculite as early as the 1970s but didn’t shut the mine down until 1990. W.R. Grace was ordered to pay the government for cleanup efforts at the site.
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 in an attempt to protect the money from asbestos claims. The Department of Justice declared it fraudulent and ordered that $1 billion be returned to the company to be considered as assets in the bankruptcy process.
W.R. Grace didn’t emerge from bankruptcy until 2014, ending one of the longest bankruptcy periods ever seen. As part of the reorganization the company had to create an asbestos trust to fund claims over asbestos exposure and illness. Called the WRG Asbestos Personal Injury Trust, it was funded with billions of dollars. There are many more victims to settle with as more people come forward with diagnoses.
The use of asbestos by W.R. Grace is one of the most catastrophic examples of asbestos exposure in U.S. history. The extensive mining of vermiculite that the company knew was contaminated with a harmful substance led W.R. Grace to be held liable in thousands of cases of mesothelioma, lung cancer, asbestosis, and asbestos-related wrongful death. Although the company is now Grace, it still has to live with the damage it caused and the trust is still open to compensate victims that deserve it.
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