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Grace tried to make products safe, witness says

Fri., April 10, 2009

’80s asbestos rules called ‘moving target’

MISSOULA – Defense attorneys in the W.R. Grace & Co. criminal trial sought to emphasize Thursday in cross-examining a government witness that former Grace executives, through research and product testing, tried to make Libby vermiculite products as safe as possible.

Attorney David Bernick questioned former Grace researcher Stephen Venuti about his efforts to reduce asbestos content in Libby vermiculite, which the Maryland-based corporation mined for decades and sold nationwide as insulation and gardening products.

The Missoulian newspaper reported on its Web site that Bernick characterized emerging asbestos exposure standards in 1987 as “a moving target.” He said Grace defendants succeeded at meeting many of those regulations.

Bernick introduced one document that showed asbestos levels were reduced 10 times when researchers began adding water to the product – a move that also reduced profits, since wetting the vermiculite reduced the volume that could fit in each bag.

“Because it reduced the volume, there were fewer bags and therefore fewer dollars, right?” Bernick asked, trying to dispel prosecutors’ theory that Grace chose profits over environmental and occupational safety.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean sought to show on redirect that Grace executives, through their own product testing, knew that Libby vermiculite released high levels of asbestos fibers, even when products contained very low concentrations of asbestos.

McLean next called to the stand Bruce Williams, a former marketing manager for Grace who is testifying under a writ of immunity arranged through the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

McLean questioned Williams about whether he was concerned that emerging safety regulations would require Grace to label its products as hazardous.

Williams replied that labeling was “a waste of time.”

“The amounts that we were dealing with were so very small that in effect they were as if they didn’t exist in the product, and therefore describing this to a customer would accomplish nothing,” Williams said.



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