Trial Begins Over Asbestos-Contaminated Montana Town

March 2, 2009

A federal prosecutor told jurors that a chemical company knew for years that its mining operation in a small Montana town exposed residents to asbestos, but the company hid the risks from workers and government regulators.

W.R. Grace & Co. “and individual executives chose profits at the expense of people’s health and chose avoiding liability over disclosing health hazards to the government,” prosecutor Kris McLean told a U.S. District Court jury in Missoula in an opening statement.

Attorney David Bernick of Chicago, who is representing Grace, sought to blunt the emotional nature of the prosecution’s presentation. Grace did not conspire to hide an asbestos contamination problem that was already widely known in the community and to regulators, he said.

Grace, which bought the mine in 1963, will contend that asbestos contamination was much worse under its predecessor, Zonolite. Asbestos-related disease can take decades to appear after exposure, Bernick said.

“If people are getting sick today, it’s not because of conditions today or recently,” he said.

Grace and five retired executives are charged with violating the federal Clean Air Act and obstructing an Environmental Protection Agency investigation into the asbestos contamination. All face up to 15 years in prison and fines totaling millions of dollars.

The company mined vermiculite in the northwestern Montana town of Libby, but the mine was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers, which can be inhaled and can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.

Lawyers for area residents contend asbestos exposure killed more than 200 people and sickened some 2,000, and the toll is rising because the diseases develop slowly.

McLean said the company knew through its own research that even low levels of asbestos in the vermiculite became dangerous when disturbed. Even so, Grace donated dangerous mine waste to Libby schools to build running tracks, he said.

“They endangered the health of hundreds, if not thousands,” McLean told jurors. “This case is about holding this company and these executives accountable for very serious wrongs.”

The legal issue is whether Grace, which bought the mine in 1963, and its co-defendants knew of the mine’s health risks for years before federal regulators arrived. The government contends the company and some of its managers conspired to hide health risks from its workers.

Bernick said allegations of public endangerment and conspiracy to defraud the government relate not to the time when the mine was operating, but to the period after 1999 when the EPA went to Libby to collect information about asbestos contamination. The mine closed in 1990.

“There is no charge in this case that the defendants, Grace or the individuals, acted criminally to cause injury to miners and their families,” Bernick said.

No one disputes that miners were exposed to asbestos dust and then carried it home on their clothes, he said.

“There is no question that miners and their families suffered tragic losses as a consequence of the operation of this mine,” Bernick said. But he noted that Grace took active steps that reduced asbestos exposure after the company bought the mine.

Libby is a town of about 2,600 people in a forested valley of the Cabinet Mountains, about 100 miles northwest of Missoula. The town was declared a Superfund cleanup site in 2002.

McLean said Libby suffers 40 to 80 times the national average in its rate of death from asbestosis, and lung-cancer mortality is 30 percent higher than health officials would expect the town to experience.

The trial is expected to last several months.

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