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Former employee helped delay asbestos studies

MISSOULA — A former W.R. Grace & Co. executive has testified that he helped the company delay a federal health study of the Libby vermiculite mine.

Robert Locke testified Tuesday during the trial in which Columbia, Md.-based Grace and five one-time company officials are charged with endangering the community of Libby by mining asbestos-laced ore, and doing so in violation of federal law.

Locke, a former vice president of Grace’s construction products division, said the study, promoted in 1980 and 1981 by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, would have assessed the public health hazards of asbestos-laced vermiculite mined near Libby. Locke said the outcome could have devastated Grace’s vermiculite business.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean showed Locke numerous internal communications among company officials who were determined to stop or at least delay the NIOSH study.

In one memo, Locke advised his supervisors to “be slow, review things extensively and contribute to delay.”

The memo continues: “This might not be bad policy generally and it is possible that the new administration’s policies will make NIOSH more selective in how scarce staff resources are allocated after Jan. 20, 1981” — the day President Ronald Reagan was sworn into office.

Locke told jurors he knew the NIOSH study could have a negative effect on Grace’s business, in part because he had overseen failed experiments aimed at reducing the release of asbestos fibers from Grace’s products.

“The asbestos just kept coming out,” he testified.

In order to interfere with the NIOSH study, Locke told his bosses to seek an injunction from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which maintained regulatory authority over the Libby mine.

Grace succeeded in delaying the study for nine months, Locke said.

Much of the government’s evidence presented Monday and Tuesday was in the form of internal documents that Locke took just before being fired in 1998. He said he stored boxes of papers in his basement, fearing he would need them in the event criminal action was taken against the company.

Locke dug out the papers in November 2004 when federal investigators showed up at his house.

Locke has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the environmental crimes case against Grace and could still face federal charges. He has turned down immunity offers from the government, but decided to testify anyway.