Less than a Decade Ago, Executives at Chemical company WR Grace were Indicted for Concealing Information About Asbestos in the Vermiculite Mines

Vermiculite is a mineral that occurs naturally and usually contains no asbestos. It has a shiny, flaky appearance in its natural form, but puffs up and appears duller after being heated. 

Heating vermiculite causes it to ‘pop’ rather like popcorn. In its expanded state, it is lightweight, odorless, and fire-resistant, making it a highly useful material for fireproofing and insulation applications. 

Vermiculite on its own poses no hazard to human health. But, when contaminated with asbestos, heating, and handling, it can cause dangerous asbestos fibers to become airborne. These fibers are microscopic, and when inhaled or ingested, they can lead to severe lung diseases and a particularly aggressive form of cancer called Mesothelioma

W.R. Grace’s Libby mine

In the 1920s, six miles from a town called Libby in Montana, mining for vermiculite began. In 1963, the operations were bought by the chemical company W.R.Grace. Two facilities based in the town heated the vermiculite, causing it to expand. Little did the workers know that the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos, and heating it was causing serious health risks to them and the consumers using the final product

W. R. Grace Produced the Majority of the World’s Vermiculite 

At the peak of its operations, the Libby mine is estimated to have provided as much as 80% of the world’s vermiculite. Most of this product was contaminated with tremolite – one of the most toxic forms of asbestos in the Amphibole family

The Libby vermiculite mine continued to operate until 1990, when Grace shut it down. 

The devastating consequences of W.r. Grace’s Asbestos Cover-up

By the time the Libby mine had closed down, Grace had contaminated the surrounding lands and poisoned many Libby residents. It is estimated that approximately 400 citizens of Libby have died as a direct result of the contaminated vermiculite, and nearly three thousand continue to suffer from asbestos-related illnesses such as asbestosis, lung cancer, and Mesothelioma. 

Furthermore, given the vast quantity of Libby Vermiculite that was provided to buildings and homes across America and beyond, the number of potential victims is hard to fathom. 

The lawsuit uncovers W.R. Grace’s conspiracy for profit

In February of 2005, Grace, along with seven other Grace executives, was indicted for ‘knowingly endangering residents of Libby, Montana, and concealing information about the health effects of its asbestos mining operations.’ 

Indictment of W.R. Grace Executives for Asbestos Cover-Up

According to the indictment, from as far back as the 1970s, both Grace and its executives attempted to conceal information regarding the dangers of the company’s contaminated vermiculite. The indictment goes on to state that Grace and its executives purposely concealed and misrepresented the hazardous nature of the contaminated vermiculite for the express purpose of enriching themselves and others. Co-conspirators included employees, lawyers, insurance companies, and doctors. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began assessing and working to reduce the risk to Libby residents in 1999. To Grace’s credit, they were the only asbestos company to have ever attempted to right their wrongs by removing asbestos from our environment, and have spent millions of dollars doing so. The various litigation settlements, personal injury trust payments, and EPA clean-up costs have cost the company billions of dollars. W.R. Grace is now a specialty chemical company based in Columbia, Maryland. 

A human and environmental tragedy

The U.S. government called the Libby asbestos contamination the ‘worst case of industrial poisoning of a whole community in American History.’ 

The Libby mine’s contaminated vermiculite is inevitably still present in many buildings and homes throughout the country. If you think you may have vermiculite insulation in your attic, home, or building, leave it undisturbed. If you must move it, engage with professional contractors trained in safe asbestos removal to do it for you. 


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