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Trial of W.R. Grace set for May 2006

Associated Press

MISSOULA – U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy set a May 15, 2006, trial for W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its executives, all accused of conspiring for decades to hide the health dangers posed by asbestos-laced vermiculite mined by the company near Libby.

Defense attorneys argued they didn’t have enough time before that date to review all the evidence.

Prosecuting Attorney Kris McLean asked for a September 2005 trial date, arguing that an early date was necessary given the life expectancy of some of the witnesses.

“Many of our witnesses are slowly dying, and many of those are victims and have very much an interest in seeing this case go to court,” McLean said Wednesday.

The company and seven top executives are named in a 10-count indictment accusing them of intentionally keeping secret numerous studies spelling out the risk cancer-causing tremolite asbestos posted to its customers, employees and Libby residents.

Individuals charged are senior vice president Robert Bettacchi, former director of health Henry Eschenbach, assistant secretary and chief group counsel Mario Favorito, former general manager of operations William McCraig, former mine supervisor Alan Stringer, former senior vice president Robert Walsh and former vice president of mining and engineering Jack Wolter. All have pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution expects to have about 1,000 exhibits, more than 60 witnesses and estimated attorneys must review between 2.5 million and 3.5 million pages of documents. Defense lawyers argued those documents included only those used by the prosecution and didn’t include the millions of additional pages needed to be reviewed by the defense.

Molloy said he believed more than 14 months was enough time to prepare.

He said the May trial date was a balance between the complexity of the case of the mandate to ensure justice and a timely trial.

“We have to buckle down and get this case to trial,” Molloy said.

Asbestos contamination in Libby surfaced in 1999 after national news reports first linked the pollution from a nearby vermiculite mine to the deaths and illnesses of area residents. The vermiculite ore was used in a number of household products, including home insulation. The ore, however, contained naturally occurring tremolite asbestos, a carcinogen.

The Libby area has been declared a Superfund site, and the Environmental Protection Agency has spent more than $55 million on cleanup so far.

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