W.R. Grace Aware of Asbestos Release from Vermiculite

"You can't mine completely clean vermiculite.... It's impossible."

March 25, 2009 - Jurors in the W.R. Grace criminal trial heard testimony from two former Grace employees that focused on a central theme-the asbestos in Libby's vermiculite could not be contained and Grace knew it was a problem.

Dr. Julie Yang, Grace's research manager for 20 years, was tasked with developing a non-hazardous product from Libby's vermiculite supply. Despite numerous studies focusing on controlling the volume of asbestos fibers released from vermiculite products, the outcomes were always less than satisfactory. "You can't mine completely clean vermiculite. Period," she said. "It's impossible. It [asbestos] is so small you cannot prove you have 100 percent clear samples."

To gain a better understanding of the potential dangers of the asbestos released from Libby vermiculite, Dr. Yang successfully lobbied for an animal study to measure asbestos health hazards. In the "hamster study," hamsters exposed to asbestos from Libby vermiculite developed mesothelioma and other cancers. Grace management, upon receiving the study results, decided not to publish the hamster study. Faced with changes in asbestos legislation and unable to control the asbestos release from vermiculite, Grace looked at new avenues to limit asbestos exposure.

Grace Struggled to Meet New OSHA Regulations

Former global vice president Robert Locke echoed the sentiments of Dr. Yang in his testimony. Assigned to numerous asbestos fiber reduction programs, Locke was tasked with finding methods to reduce asbestos release as OSHA began tightening asbestos regulations. "Things were getting hot with OSHA. It would have put us out of business. There was no way we could comply," Locke said of the high asbestos fiber counts produced by Libby's mine.

Increasingly concerned about liability, Grace took measures to help cut down on asbestos exposure within their production plants. The introduction of dust pick-up kits and clean sweepers, while good on paper, were ineffective in reducing worker exposure to asbestos.

Locke has been named an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the environmental crimes case against Grace, and federal charges could still be forthcoming based on his trial testimony. He turned down offers of immunity from the U.S. and decided to testify regardless of his personal risk.

Ongoing Challenge in Proving Criminal Intent

Despite Grace's knowledge of the health dangers from products manufactured from Libby vermiculite, the U.S. is still tasked with showing Grace violated the criminal provision of the Clean Air Act after 1990, the same year Grace closed the mine in Libby.

Grace Trial Coverage on Asbestos Network:

  • W.R. Grace Claims Asbestos Types from Zonolite Mine Unregulated
  • W.R. Grace Knew of Asbestos Dangers at Zonolite Mountain Mine
  • Testimony that W.R. Grace Knowingly Sold Asbestos Covered Land