February 24, 2009 in Region

Grace lawyers move for dismissal of key charges

Associated Press
 
Trial coverage
University of Montana law and journalism students are covering the W.R. Grace trial via a blog.

MISSOULA — Attorneys for W.R. Grace and Co. asked a federal judge Tuesday to acquit the company on three counts of knowingly endangering the community of Libby.

The defense argued the applicable federal law did not exist when Grace operated a vermiculite mine at Libby and committed the alleged offenses.

The Missoulian newspaper reported the motion on its Web site.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy took it under advisement.

Grace and five former company officials are on trial, charged with a federal conspiracy involving Clean Air Act violations and obstruction of justice. At issue is whether the company and its top employees knowingly endangered miners and others in Libby by mining asbestos-laced ore, and whether they did so in violation of federal law.

Lawyers for Libby residents say asbestos exposure has killed more than 200 people and sickened some 2,000.

Federal prosecutors calling their first witnesses Tuesday were met by a barrage of objections from defense lawyers, who argued the government’s line of questioning strayed outside a narrow timeframe in which the company’s alleged criminal acts must have occurred.

Defense lawyers have maintained that much of the government’s case attempts to hold Grace accountable for asbestos releases that took place before the applicable law was enacted in 1990.

After U.S. District Judge Don Molloy excused jurors for the noon recess, he asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean to clarify the thrust of the government’s questioning.

McLean said he was attempting to lay foundation relevant to the obstruction prong of the charged conspiracy.

Because 1990 was around the same time that Grace closed its Libby vermiculite operation, the government is asserting a theory of liability that “normal human activity” after the mine closed continued to disturb asbestos-laced vermiculite and cause releases of hazardous asbestos.

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