Tuesday, February 15, 2005
...the word that the U.S. Senate voted for tort deform last week came just a few days after the news that seven executives of W.R. Grace and Co. were indicted on criminal charges for knowingly exposing their workers and the public to asbestos ore.
Hundreds of miners, their family members and townsfolk in Libby, Mont., have died, and at least 1,200 more are sick from breathing the air polluted by the mine. Since the ore was shipped all over the country and was used as insulation in millions of homes, the total health effects are incalculable. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer deserves credit for bringing Grace to public attention with a series back in 1999.
The executives and the company were indicted on 10 counts of conspiracy, knowing endangerment, obstruction of justice and wire fraud.
W.R. Grace & Co. "categorically denies any criminal wrongdoing," said a spokesman.
The indictments and the P-I's series were based on tens of thousands of internal communications among the top health, marketing and legal managers at Grace about how to conceal the danger of asbestos in both the ore from the Libby mine and the products that were made from it. Their memos include discussion of how to keep investigators from studying the health of the miners, how to keep safety warnings off their products and how to hide the hazards of working with asbestos ore.
A lawyer with a Montana firm that has been trying to help families of the dead and dying for years said: "The prosecution cannot eliminate the death and disease in Libby. But there is comfort in the hope that criminal convictions will say to corporate America: Managers will be held criminally accountable if they lie and watch workers die."
According to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2001 because of a "sharply increasing number of asbestos claims." However, in 2002, the Justice Department intervened in a bankruptcy proceeding for the first time ever, alleging that before Grace asked for Chapter 11, it concealed money in new companies it bought. The Justice Department said it was a "fraudulent transfer" of money to protect itself from civil suits.
Just before the bankruptcy trial was to begin, Grace returned almost $1 billion to the bankruptcy court. The company currently has annual sales of about $2 billion, more than 6,000 employees and operations in nearly 40 companies.