April 29, 2009 in City

Grace asbestos trial under way again

Charges remain against company, four executives
Susan Gallagher Associated Press
 

MISSOULA – Testimony in the W.R. Grace environmental crimes trial resumed Tuesday after a federal judge refused to dismiss charges alleging the company and four former executives knowingly concealed health risks posed by asbestos-laced vermiculite mined in northwestern Montana.

A day earlier, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted a prosecution motion to dismiss charges against one former executive, Robert Walsh. Prosecutors said they lacked evidence to continue their case against Walsh.

The government alleges that Columbia, Md.-based Grace and the former executives conspired to hide health risks posed by tremolite, a type of asbestos in vermiculite extracted at a Libby mine the company acquired in the 1960s and closed in 1990. Lawyers for some Libby residents say asbestos has sickened about 2,000 people and killed about 225.

Defense attorneys who told Molloy on Monday that the prosecution’s case was too defective for the two-month-old trial to continue were particularly critical of testimony by former Grace executive Robert Locke, a star witness for the prosecution.

Molloy ruled Tuesday that Locke may be called for further questioning, within limits. The judge has said he mistrusts Locke’s testimony that he helped Grace obstruct government study of health issues related to the Grace mine.

Molloy said he would tell the jury to disregard Locke’s testimony about former Grace executive Robert Bettacchi. Locke testified that he tried to persuade Bettacchi not to sell contaminated mine property to a couple that bought the land and converted it to a tree nursery and mushroom farm.

Grace attorneys said that Locke fabricated the conversation, and that Locke told members of the grand jury a different story. Locke, fired by W.R. Grace in 1998, has a lawsuit pending against Bettacchi.

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