February 24, 2009 in City

Grace asbestos trial opens

Prosecutor says mine owner hid risks
Nicholas K. Geranios Associated Press

Online coverage

University of Montana law and journalism students are covering the W.R. Grace trial at http://blog.umt.edu/gracecase, which includes daily coverage, background, explanations on how a criminal trial proceeds and other legal issues, multimedia, and biographies of key figures in the case.

MISSOULA – A federal prosecutor told jurors Monday that W.R. Grace & Co. knew for years that its products posed serious health hazards to residents of Libby, Mont., but the company hid the risks from workers and government regulators.

In opening statements at a major environmental crime trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said the company and its executives conspired to keep those hazards a secret.

“The company and individual executives chose profits at the expense of people’s health and chose avoiding liability over disclosing health hazards to the government,” McLean told a U.S. District Court jury in Missoula. “They endangered the health of hundreds, if not thousands.”

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 of its former executives are on trial on charges that from 1976 to 1990 they knowingly allowed workers to be exposed to asbestos from the vermiculite mine the company had operated near Libby. The company and some executives also are charged with hampering the federal investigation of contamination.

Lawyers for residents of the Libby area say asbestos exposure has killed more than 200 people and sickened some 2,000, and the toll is rising because the diseases can take years to appear.

McLean contended the company did its own research and learned decades ago that even low levels of asbestos in the vermiculite became dangerous when disturbed. Even so, Grace donated dangerous mine waste for Libby schools to use in building tracks for runners, he said.

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. Bernick said the figures are based on flawed studies.

Libby is a town of about 2,600 people in a forested valley of the Cabinet Mountains, about 100 miles northwest of Missoula.

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