March 6, 2009 in City

Woman testifies against Grace

Manager knew asbestos risks, witness says
Associated Press
 
Trial coverage
University of Montana law and journalism students are covering the W.R. Grace trial via a blog.

MISSOULA – A woman who purchased property from a defunct vermiculite mine in Libby says she received a copy of a letter written by the mine manager saying he knew the risks of asbestos in the vermiculite.

And a physician, testifying as an expert government witness, said he has diagnosed 1,800 people with asbestos-related diseases, all of whom had been exposed to asbestos fibers in Libby.

W.R. Grace & Co., based in Columbia, Md., and five former company officials are on trial on federal allegations that they knowingly exposed the residents of the small town to asbestos fibers that have killed hundreds and sickened thousands.

The trial resumes Monday morning.

Lerah Parker testified Wednesday that former mine manager Alan Stringer’s letter to W.R. Grace officials said: “I knew that there was a health problem associated with exposure to asbestos for both employees and their families when the mine and mill were still operating.”

Stringer, who was initially charged in the case, died in 2007.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean then asked Parker about her medical condition.

“I have signs of disease on my right lung. It’s asbestosis,” she said.

Parker and her husband, Mel, brought the property from Grace in the early 1990s. They built a nursery and used vermiculite left on the property to plant fruit trees and mushrooms. When soil samples showed the property was covered with asbestos-laced tremolite from the mine, the Parkers were forced to shut down the business and move.

Mel Parker testified Tuesday that Grace offered $950,000 and then $1.2 million for the property in the spring of 2000. The couple didn’t take the offer because of concerns over taxes and limits on what demolition costs Grace would cover, he said.

The prosecution wanted to call the Parkers to testify last, but the couple wanted to be able to sit in on the trial so U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy moved up their testimony so they could observe the rest of the trial.

Another government witness, Dr. Alan Whitehouse of Spokane, said the Parkers were among the 1,800 people he diagnosed while working at Libby’s Center for Asbestos-related Disease, which was established to screen concerned Libby residents.

Whitehouse said Libby has the nation’s highest rate of the asbestos-related disease mesothelioma.

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