Ex-employee Says He Warned of Asbestos Risk in ’76

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – A former W.R. Grace & Co. employee says he warned supervisors of asbestos hazards in 1976, when studies showed consumer products were releasing high concentrations of the dangerous fibers.

“I felt there was a train wreck occurring and I wanted to tell my boss,” said Robert Locke, a longtime Grace employee who was fired from the company in 1998.

The Missoulian newspaper reported his testimony on its Web site Monday.

Columbia, Md.-based Grace and five one-time company officials are accused of endangering the community of Libby by mining asbestos-laced ore, and doing so in violation of federal law.

Locke has been named an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the environmental crimes case against Grace, and federal charges could still be forthcoming based on his trial testimony. He has been involved in litigation against the construction products giant for more than a decade.

Locke was contacted by investigators from the Department of Justice in November 2004.

“I was concerned about my own criminal liability from my involvement with the company,” Locke said. “I was on a list of criminal conspirators.”

However, he has since turned down immunity offers from federal prosecutors, and decided to testify at the trial regardless.

Locke began working for Grace in 1974 and was given several promotions, finishing his career in the construction division as global vice president and chief technical officer.

Locke worked with defendant Robert Bettacchi to oversee the company’s health, safety and environmental issues.

Locke said he was assigned to various “fiber-reduction” programs as government agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began tightening asbestos regulations.

“Things were getting hot with OSHA. It would have put us out of business. There was no way we could comply,” Locke said of the high fiber counts.

The company tried taking measures to cut down on asbestos exposure at expanding plants throughout the country, but Locke said the measures — dust pickup kits and clean sweepers __ were not effective.

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