In a case that the Justice Department described as as one of the most serious criminal indictments in U.S. history, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that criminal charges against W.R. Grace executives for "knowing endangerment" could be reinstated.
We recently blogged about asbestos-related illnesses surfacing in workers of a Texas vermiculite plant that was run by W.R. Grace. The plant processed vermiculite from the company's infamous mine in Libby, Montana. We noted that seven W.R. Grace executives would be facing a criminal trial in September related to deaths that have occurred in Libby. The charges can lead to 15 years in prison on each count
Executives are being charged with exposing Libby residents to asbestos fibers for more than three decades, despite being aware of the dangers of the ore, as indicated by internal company documents. Workers were never alerted to those dangers.
"From 1963 until the early 1990s, Grace mined and processed a large supply of vermiculite ore on a mountain six miles outside Libby. Clouds of vermiculite, which contained tiny shards of dangerous asbestos, were inhaled by the miners and brought home to their families in their clothes.
The health crisis that followed didn’t become national news until 1999 when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that hundreds of vermiculite miners and their families had died and thousands more had become ill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency immediately launched an emergency cleanup."
Last year, a federal judge dropped some charges on a statute of limitations basis and excluded some evidence considered vital to prosecuting the government's case. But on September 20, the federal Appeals Court reinstated conspiracy and environmental charges against the company and its executives. Prosecutors can now present evidence back to 1976. Studies show that the rate of asbestos-related illness in Libby is 40 times higher than the national average.
We will be following this case, which affects many workers, family members, and townspeople. We suspect that workers and family members of the more than 200 plants nationwide that were processing the ore will also be following this case. Those of us in Massachusetts remember another highly publicized environmental case involving W.R. Grace in Woburn, Mass., a case that had widespread attention due to a book and a film called A Civil Action.