Workers at W.R. Grace & Company in Libby, Montana, also known as Western Mineral, mined and processed vermiculite. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that was often used in insulation and in potting soil. They worked in a cloud of dust, but they didn’t know the vermiculite they were mining was tainted by asbestos.
About 92% of long-term workers from W.R. Grace & Company now have mesothelioma or asbestos lung cancer, according to the New York Times. However, they typically didn’t get diagnosed until decades after their exposure. These diseases, which are only caused by asbestos exposure, take many years to develop.
‘It was a scheme to cheat these workers,’ says plaintiff’s attorney
In most cases, the diseases hit the patients only after they retired – after they were no longer eligible for workers’ compensation. Indeed, according to the plaintiff in a recent case, W.R. Grace and its workers’ comp insurer, Maryland Casualty Company, conspired to hide from workers the fact that the vermiculite was tainted with asbestos. According to his lawsuit, documents and witness testimony show that the two companies intentionally tried to prevent workers from making their rightful workers’ compensation claims in order to save money.
Recently, a Montana jury agreed. It awarded the man $36.5 million in compensation for his illness and losses. He is currently living with increasing difficulty in breathing – and there is no cure.
More than 2,400 people in Libby have been diagnosed with asbestos-related illness and at least 400 have died from it. They weren’t all W.R. Grace workers. The families of some workers were exposed via dust that came home on the workers’ clothes. W.R. Grace also donated vermiculite for use all around town, such as on the town’s running track and baseball field. The plant polluted the air of the small town with asbestos fibers.
Libby, Montana is now a Superfund site. In 2009, the EPA declared a public health emergency for the town – the first time it had ever done so. The tragedy there continues to slowly unfold.
W.R. Grace declared bankruptcy in 2001, largely due to its liability for asbestos-related illnesses in the town. Maryland Casualty (now part of Zurich Insurance) is the primary party facing lawsuits over the asbestos contamination.
This $36.5 million verdict is the first in a long line of cases against Maryland Casualty.
W.R. Grace was not alone
These companies were not the only businesses in the U.S. who knowingly allowed their employees to be exposed to asbestos even after they knew it could cause mesothelioma and other deadly cancers. Here in Minnesota, multiple companies operated job sites where asbestos exposure occurred.