The US Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by the W.R. Grace and Co. in the government’s criminal case against the corporate giant relating to its release of asbestos from the Libby, Montana vermiculite mine which the company owned. In February of 2005, Federal prosecutors charged W.R. Grace and six of the company’s top executives with violations of the Clean Air Act. According to the government suit, the executives were aware of the danger posed by asbestos but continued to operate the mine. The Supreme Court also rejected a separate appeal filed by the executives in question, who could be sentenced to prison terms as long as 15 years apiece if they are found guilty of the charges. W.R. Grace owned and operated the Libby vermiculite mine from 1963 to 1990, producing millions of tons of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite ore. Workers at the mine were directly exposed, and in addition carried asbestos fibers home from work on their clothing, exposing family and community members. Vermiculite from the Libby mine was shipped to hundreds of processing plants around the United States and was used in insulation, fireproofing, and gardening products.
Vermiculite by itself is thought to be harmless, but some sources of vermiculite, such as the Libby deposit, are contaminated with asbestos fibers, which are deadly. About 2,000 Libby residents have developed asbestos-related conditions, at as many as 225 people have died as a result of the asbestos contamination, according to civil suits filed against W.R. Grace and Co. The company argues that the Clean Air Act, as interpreted by the Environmental Protection Agency, does not cover the substances taken from the Libby mine. A district court judge agreed with the company’s interpretation of the law, but the 9 th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his ruling. W.R. Grace and Co. agreed to a $3 billion settlement for all its asbestos liabilities in April of 2008. A trust fund for those claims will be established when the company emerges from bankruptcy. The company has also agreed to pay the Federal government $250 million to cover its expenses in investigating and cleaning up the asbestos contamination in Libby.