andrew schneider investigates

June 23, 2008

W.R. Grace criminal trial to proceed

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 10:21

After almost three years of stalling, questionable court rulings and a flood of appeals, it looks like the criminal trial of W.R. Grace and six of its top executives may actually happen.

The Supreme Court this morning rejected two appeals by Grace and its executives stemming from February 2005 indictments alleging, among many other charges, that the world-wide chemical company knowingly endangered the lives of its workers and others in the tiny Montana town of Libby.

It was the largest environmental-based criminal indictment ever brought, prosecutors said at the time on the courthouse steps in Missoula. U.S. Attorney Bill Mercers’ every word was being closely measured by a handful of Libby’s 2,400 residents standing nearby who were sickened from exposure to asbestos that contaminated the vermiculite that Grace was mining on nearby Zonolite Mountain from 1963 to 1990.

Les Skramstad and two of the federal investigators who investigated Grace’s actions in Libby, discuss the indictment. Skramstad, a honey-voiced singing cowboy worked at the mine and died of an asbestos-related disease, before he had a chance to sit in the front row at Grace’s trial. Photo by Andrew Schneider.

The asbestos-related death toll in Libby is estimated to exceed 400 and that doesn’t begin to include workers and neighbors of the scores of other Zonolite-processing plants.

Workers carried the asbestos home on their clothing and court documents said that 5,000-pounds of asbestos fibers fell on the small community each day.

According to thousands of pages of Grace documents the Seattle P-I gathered in 1999 while investigating the company’s actions, Grace officials knew of the dangers. They, and the federal government, were well aware of the risks to Libby’s miners and townsfolk, but also to those who worked at or lived near Grace’s network of Zonolite “expansion plants.”

EPA records show that Grace shipped millions of tons of the asbestos-contaminated ore to about 200 facilities throughout North America which produced attic and wall insulation, fireproofing, gardening and other products.

In its request for Supreme Court intervention, Grace argued over the scientific definition of the type of asbestos that contaminated the vermiculite. The company, based in Columbia, Md., insisted that the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of asbestos doesn’t cover most of the fibers identified in its ore. The federal judge who will hear the case agreed with Grace’s lawyers, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and several others.

The scientific arguments infuriated many of the EPA personnel who arrived in Libby within days of the P-I stories and came to care for many of the town’s residents whose funerals they attended.

In April, Grace agreed to pay $3 billion to those sickened or killed because of its actions in Libby. With today’s Supreme Court refusal to hear the case, there is nowhere else for Grace to appeal, and depending on the schedule of U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, the trial could begin in late fall or early winter.


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