Jury acquits Grace, executives in asbestos case

W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted Friday of federal charges that they knowingly allowed Libby residents to be exposed to asbestos from the company’s vermiculite mine in northwestern Montana.

An indictment unsealed four years ago charged that Maryland-based chemical company Grace and several of its one-time executives conspired to hide health risks posed by asbestos in vermiculite the company mined years ago near Libby, and that they ignored state agencies’ warnings to clean up the mining operation.

W.R. Grace released a statement saying the company was “gratified” with the verdict.

“We always believed that Grace and its former executives had acted properly and that a jury would come to the same conclusion when confronted with the evidence,” Fred Festa, chairman, CEO and president of W.R. Grace said in a statement.

“During the time that Grace owned and operated the mine in Libby, Montana, the company worked hard to keep the operations in compliance with the laws and standards of the day,” he said.

During the trial, charges against two executives were dropped at the request of prosecutors. The jury acquitted Henry Eschenbach, Jack Wolter and Robert Bettacchi.

“I’m grateful and happy to go home,” said Wolter, who is retired and lives in Palm Desert, Calif.

Attorneys for some Libby residents blame tremolite asbestos for about 2,000 cases of illness and about 225 deaths in and around the community.

Gayla Benefield of Libby, who suffers health effects from asbestos exposure and lost both parents to asbestos-related lung diseases, said she doesn’t know what the next step will be.

“They have gotten away with murder. That’s all I can say,” she said.

Grace knew about the health hazards of asbestos, but concealed them “so they could continue making money as well as avoid liability,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said during Wednesday’s closing arguments. The company bought the mine in 1963 and closed it in 1990.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct arose during the trial.

“I think that was simply another manifestation of the fact that the case was not a good case on its merits,” said David Burnick, attorney for Grace.

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy was visibly frustrated at times during the trial, at one point telling prosecutors they did not understand the evidence they were presenting.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr of Billings, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department in Montana, and said there was no immediate comment on Friday.

The verdicts make moot defense motions seeking judicial acquittals for the company and the three men. Molloy had said he would not rule on the motions before the jury finished deliberating.

Attorney Tom Frongillo, who represented Bettacchi, said the swiftness of the deliberations after a trial spanning nearly three months was not surprising.

“In long trials like this one, people begin to make up their minds along the way,” Frongillo said.

Asbestos contamination in Libby led to environmental cleanup and health care services that have become a major economic force in the community once reliant on mining and logging.

Cleanup overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cost tens of millions of dollars. The town at the hub of an area with about 10,000 residents now has a health clinic devoted to asbestos-related disease. Libby has held asbestos “health fairs” and a local company got into the business of manufacturing backpack-style carriers for oxygen tanks used to aid the breathing of people with asbestos-scarred lungs.

The vermiculite at the Grace mine contained tremolite asbestos, a form particularly dangerous to human health. Miners carried asbestos home on their clothes, vermiculite used to cover school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens.

Ed Baker, a former city councilman and business owner in Libby, said he knew the company wasn’t guilty.

Baker said his father worked at Zonolite, the name of the mill before Grace bought it, and died of asbestos-related disease in 1983.

“They knew the stuff wasn’t any good for them,” he said. “They were miners. You take your chances. I knew all the guys that worked up there with my dad. They all died of the same thing.”

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

Talk about the verdict at Huckleberries Online.

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