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Expert calls extent of Libby illnesses ‘unheard of’

Tue., March 10, 2009, 8:30 p.m.

MISSOULA — A medical expert testifying Tuesday in the W.R. Grace trial described his disbelief when, arriving in Libby 10 years ago, he found that people who had never worked at Grace’s vermiculite mine were dying from asbestos-related disease.

“To see an individual who had died of asbestos-related disease who was not a worker was unheard of,” said Dr. Aubrey Miller, a physician and investigator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “I had never seen a case or heard of a case like that.”

The Missoulian newspaper reported Miller’s testimony on its Web site.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy overruled defense motions to keep Miller off the stand or restrict his testimony.

Miller testified about a range of product tests that Grace officials used to assess the hazards of Libby vermiculite. Among its findings, Grace learned that the vermiculite had a high tendency to release asbestos fibers into the air, Miller said.

“Grace had information about the asbestos, about the nature of the asbestos to become airborne, they had information about health effects on their workers and they had information about animal studies where the animals were being exposed to the same materials as the workers,” Miller said.

The EPA team also set out to identify exposure pathways through which non-miners might have encountered asbestos fibers during the course of their daily lives.

After interviewing community members, Miller heard stories about people popping the vermiculite on stoves and riding four wheelers through the contaminated mine site.

“Playing in piles (of vermiculite) came up quite a bit,” Miller said. “People said they were playing in piles at the ball field.”

The company and five one-time Grace officials are charged with a federal conspiracy involving Clean Air Act violations and obstruction of justice. The charges relate to whether the company and its top employees knew they were endangering the community of Libby by mining the asbestos-laced ore, and whether they did so in violation of federal law.

Tags: W.R. Grace

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