W.R. Grace, today known as Grace, manufactures specialty chemicals and materials. After exposing thousands of people to asbestos through its vermiculite mining operations, the company went through major financial difficulties. The company emerged from bankruptcy in 2014 and funded a trust with billions of dollars to compensate asbestos and mesothelioma victims.
Although Grace is once again a successful company, it experienced a nearly thirteen-year bankruptcy period. This bankruptcy resulted from legal backlash over the hundreds of people who died from asbestos exposure caused by its Libby, Montana vermiculite mine.
The company took advantage of the growing energy sector to regain profitability. Grace now focuses on catalysts and materials, including technologies for refining crude oil, polyolefin catalysts, and specialty silica gels.
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.
Asbestos Use by W.R. Grace
W.R. Grace was a large company that operated in a variety of industries. It used asbestos in many of its products. However, 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 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 Spra-Insulation and Spra-Tex
- Zono-Coustic acoustical materials
- Hi Sorb Plater
- Gun Coat Spray Surfacer
Asbestos was once commonly used in several construction materials because it is a highly effective insulator. Vermiculite is also useful in insulation, and many products were made with this mineral. Unfortunately, vermiculite was often contaminated with asbestos fibers.
Exposure to asbestos from W.R. Grace occurred when workers handled asbestos in factories. Exposure also occurred in other industries that used Zonolite products.
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.
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 that lived near these facilities were also put at risk of exposure. Finally, many workers in other industries, especially construction, who worked with Zonolite products could have inhaled asbestos fibers.
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.
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.
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. 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.
W.R. Grace is responsible for one of the most catastrophic examples of asbestos exposure in U.S. history. Extensive mining of vermiculite the company knew was contaminated with asbestos made W.R. Grace liable in thousands of cases of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. Although the company is now Grace, it must continue to live with the damage it caused. The trust remains open to compensate victims.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
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.