Former W.R. Grace Employee Feared Asbestos Risk in ’76

MISSOULA, MT—A former employee of W.R. Grace & Co., the chemical conglomerate that is now accused of knowingly endangering residents of Libby, Montana due to its asbestos mining operations there, claims that he warned supervisors of asbestos hazards as far back as 1976.
Robert Locke, a longtime employee who rose to the position of Global Vice President and Chief Technical Officer of the construction division, was contacted by federal investigators in 2004. He has turned down immunity offers from prosecutors, and has decided to testify at the Grace trial despite fears of being brought up on his own criminal charges.

“I was on a list of criminal conspirators,” stated Locke, who had worked with defendant Robert Bettachi to oversee the company’s health, safety and environmental problems. As federal regulators such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began tightening the reins on the chemical company, Locke was also assigned to “fiber-reduction” programs within Grace.

Locke testified that although the company took steps to cut down on asbestos exposure, such as providing dust pickup kits and clean sweepers, high fiber counts continued and there was “no way to comply” with OSHA regulations without putting Grace out of business.

W.R. Grace has faced more than 270,000 lawsuits concerning asbestos exposure, of which 120,000 have not been settled or dismissed. The company, which has filed for bankruptcy, has a history of environmental crimes. In 2005, the Department of Justice began criminal proceedings against Grace, as well as seven current and former Grace executives, claiming that the company attempted to conceal information about the detrimental health effects of its vermiculite mining operations and distribution of vermiculite in the Libby, Montana area.

Asbestos, which has long been recognized for both its thermal and fireproofing qualities, as well as its carcinogenic nature, is used in many building materials. Exposure to asbestos has been linked to a number of deadly diseases, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, and pleural disease. Mesothelioma, a cancer which most commonly affects the sac surrounding the lungs, is often not diagnosed until 10-50 years after the initial exposure to asbestos, at which time it is usually untreatable.

Nearly 200 Libby, Montana residents have died from asbestos exposure, and nearly double that number have been diagnosed with fatal diseases stemming from exposure. Doctors say that the people of Libby will keep dying of mesothelioma and asbestos cancers for decades to come.

Locke, who was fired from W.R. Grace in 1998, testified that “I felt there was a train wreck occurring and I wanted to tell my boss.”