The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Asbestos and bankruptcy:
Two ways to suffocate the workers

Oct 22, 2001

In a small Montana mining town, 200 people have died from asbestosis, contracted from working at the nearby vermiculite mine owned since 1963 by W.R. Grace & Co. The mine was closed in 1990 when claims began to appear for asbestos injuries. Vermiculite produces fibers that lodge in the membranes of the lungs slowly strangling people to death.

Libby, Montana has the distinction of the worst asbestosis death rate in the country, more than FORTY times the national average. In addition to the 200 people who have already died there, Libby currently has 680 active asbestos cases, meaning more than one in every 10 people in this small town are finding it harder and harder to breathe. At least another 984 people in Libby have asbestos-related scars in their lungs, and could develop asbestosis.

Not only is the area immediately surrounding the old vermiculite plant a source of asbestos contamination. The town has a high school, a middle school and an elementary school whose fields have shown asbestos-contaminated soil. The clean-up did not even begin until this summer. The high school had vermiculite on the sports fields and harmful concentrations under the bleachers and concessions stands and on football and track equipment. The elementary school had to be closed. A skating rink on the school property had dangerous levels of vermiculite tailings, because vermiculite was used throughout the town of Libby as road fill and in gardening. About six miles of a road going past the closed mine has to be resurfaced to contain the asbestos on its surface and shoulders.

More than 30 years ago, health studies demonstrated the link between asbestos-contaminated vermiculite and terminal lung cancers. W.R. Grace and other big manufacturers of asbestos, like the criminals they are, kept it quiet. Instead, Grace produced a report in the late 1970s that pretended that vermiculite products were not dangerous to human health.

In the 1980s, as asbestos cases grew into the thousands, an effort grew to make the EPA ban its use. Even when the regulations on asbestos were finally established, the big corporations like W.R. Grace used legal maneuvers for years to stop the ban from being implemented.

Finally, after years of avoiding the ban, W.R. Grace has now filed for bankruptcy protection, giving as its reason the thousands of asbestos suits pending against the corporation. This corporation claims it has only 2.6 billion dollars left, after years as one of the most successful companies in the United States. If the company has few assets left now, it’s because it put its assets into subsidiaries in order to have nothing left to pay the claims.

One sick ex-miner put it succinctly: "I really feel that W.R. Grace, some of their CEOs, should be tried for murder, because murder is what they committed in this town."