andrew schneider investigates

February 27, 2009

Sparks fly as WR Grace trial ends first week

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace — Andrew Schneider @ 13:51

The first week of the nation’s biggest environmental crime case is over. Jurors headed home to a well-deserved drink or a fistful of headache pills. Some lawyers flew back east while most are, and will be, cloistered way until Monday in their hotel war rooms trying to sort out the ramifications of Judge Donald Molloy’s numerous head-spinning decisions and orders. And there were many.

One of the new wrinkles has to be the action this morning by the U.S. 9th Court of Appeals which tossed out Molloy’s much debated interpretation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Before the trial started, his honor ruled that 34 Libby residents who were scheduled to testify for the government couldn’t enter the courtroom because it hadn’t been shown that they were victims of criminal actions by Grace.

Depending on how Molloy react to the higher court decision, it could make next week a little spicier.

But getting back to this week, based on probably meaningless courtroom chatter, the consensus was that the prosecution was most seriously damaged by the judge’s actions. If the severe restrictions on what the prosecution’s top witness – Paul Peronard – is permitted to testify about were likened to a restricted artery, the government’s case may have suffered a mild heart attack.

But prosecutors Kris McLean and Kevin Cassidy did a lot of skillful tap dancing and on-the-fly maneuvering in skirting Molloy’s landmines and trying to patch potential gashes in their plan of battle and keep Peronard’s testimony moving.

Paul Peronard one one of the many asbestos-contaminated sites in Libby

Paul Peronard one one of the many asbestos-contaminated sites in Libby

The prosecution led the EPA on-scene coordinator though seemingly endless questions on what EPA had asked Grace and what the chemical giant had replied. There were displays of aerial photographs of locations in Libby tainted with the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite or mine waste.

Every play “Whack a Mole” at the fair? Well, defense lawyer were doing a very accurate, non-stop imitation of the game throughout Peronard’s testimony. The government could barely get a question asked before one, two or three lawyers popped up with objections.

Grace’s top lawyer David Bernick got his turn to cross-examine Peronard late in the day and it wasn’t pretty. But none of the jurors dozed off.

Bernick hammered away at Peronard, his machinegun-paced questioning attempting to rebut or at least dilute the effectiveness of every point the prosecution may have scored with the jury in establishing the obstruction of justice charge against Grace.

The center of the argument was a questionnaire called a “104-E” that I’m sure the jurors will come to despise. Companies involved in investigations into alleged illegal handling of hazardous material are required to complete the multi-page form.

Bernick repeated back almost every statement Peronard made in answer to Cassidy’s earlier questions.

In one section dealing with where Grace stored waste from the mine, Peronard responded that Bernick’s version of what he had said with “You’ve got to be kidding me. Those are your words and I think they’re nonsense.”

When the normally unflappable on-scene coordinator bit his lip and tried to show Bernick why he was mistaken, Grace’s lawyer would snarl “Unresponsive,” followed instantly with another question.

“You keep saying I knew about it and I didn’t,” Peronard jabbed at Bernick at one point.

Molloy admonished them to play nicely but the loud gamesmanship continued until the courtroom clock mercifully struck 5 o’clock and week one was declared over.

It’s going to be a very long four-months.

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Crime victims can watch W.R. Grace trial

Filed under: Asbestos,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 11:49

The 9th U.S. Court of Appeal has overturned Judge Donald Molloy’s order keeping victims of asbestos exposure who will testify in the W.R. Grace criminal trial from observing the proceedings.

A three-judge panel ruled today that: “After review of the parties’ briefs and the record, the petitions for writ of mandamus are granted.

“The district court erred in denying petitioners’ motions to accord rights to victim-witnesses based on its finding that the 34 victim-witnesses identified by the United States as prospective victims do not meet the meaning of”crime victim” set forth in the Crime Victims’ Rights Act and therefore are excluded from court proceedings.”

The order told Molloy to let them in.

It will be interesting to see what his honor will do when the trial reconvenes on Monday.

February 26, 2009

Grace and government both hide dangers in Libby

It’s bizarre and a bit prickly to sit in a federal courtroom and watch a story that you broke a decade ago, then chased with about 240 follow-ups and a book, being played out in front of you.

It becomes surreal when the judge talks about the book from the bench and defense lawyers introduce excerpts into evidence and then do dramatic readings to the star witness for the prosecution.

That’s pretty much what happened Wednesday at the criminal trial of W.R. Grace for its alleged poisoning of Libby, Mont. The prosecution’s most knowledgeable witness, Paul Peronard, EPA’s on-scene coordinator for Libby, sat in the witness chair and listened to comments he made years ago on which I had reported.

Peronard was the prime target of Grace’s defense team, who wanted him to be banned from testifying — or at least discredited. Neither happened, but Grace lawyers were able to convince Judge Donald Molloy that Peronard could only testify about his actions, and then only within a narrow time span.

The 23-year veteran of the EPA held his own and kept his cool. His straight-talking answers drew occasional smiles from some jurors and scowls from members of the defense team. But even he was puzzled when defense lawyers started reading back comments he made years earlier.

The first was a Seattle P-I story from 2005 which discussed Peronard, and Drs. Aubrey Miller and Chris Weis having a dinner at the MK Steakhouse on an elk-clogged road 10 miles out of Libby.

The trio had just left a late night community meeting where residents were seething that the international chemical company that owned the polluting mine had not yet been brought up on criminal charges.

“Grace has been telling the same lie for over 40 years,” Peronard said. “They still maintain that insulation and other products made from Libby vermiculite has little or no asbestos in it. The courts have ruled that people have died because Grace concealed the danger from their workers, from the town, and from their customers.” Peronard understood the town’s frustration, the lawyer read.

“What Grace did was criminal,” he said. “There’s got to be more that the government could do.”

A murmur went through the spectators.

The lawyer questioned whether he said it and asked if it was accurate.

“It’s pretty much what I said,” Peronard said.

The defense lawyer then read a section from “An Air That Kills,” a book on Grace’s poisoning of Libby, where Peronard and his team are sorting through documents from Grace and the government.

“When you put all these together, you’ve got the answers. You’ve got proof, vivid and unquestionable, that what was going on in Libby was a proven hazard and people we’re being killed. EPA, NIOSH, OSHA � the whole damn government � knew what was happening to the people of Libby and not a damn thing was done about any of it.”

The lawyer jumped ahead a few paragraphs.

“This is criminal,” Peronard said. “They botched the whole investigation, which would have saved twenty years’ worth of exposure and lots of lives.

“We’ve been working our asses off trying to get an understanding of what happened here, why these people were killed, and nobody mentions that we knew these guys were swallowing asbestos and did nothing about it. The courts have ruled that people have died because Grace concealed the danger from their workers, from the town and from their customers.”

This time, the lawyer asked if Peronard still believe that the actions of both Grace and the government, including his own agency, were criminal.

“Absolutely,” Peronard said. “This is why we’re here today.”

The lawyer asked if his candor had gotten him into trouble. “At times,” he answered modestly.

What he didn’t volunteer was that much of the trouble he and his team repeatedly found themselves in came from Grace, the asbestos industry and its defenders in his own agency, Capitol Hill and the White House

There was never any doubt that Grace had painted fluorescent bull’s eyes on the backs of the emergency coordinator and Miller and Weis.

Letters, e-mails and memos from Grace and other players in the asbestos world, denouncing the actions, findings and conclusions of the threesome fill files in every federal agency that deals with public health – EPA, MSHA, NIOSH, USGS – and the archives of the Bush White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

It’s difficult being a reporter who has been this close to an issue and people that he’s come to know over years. I’ve been to too many funerals in Libby. I always have to watch what I say and what I write even on this blog and that’s as it should be. But it’s getting rough covering this trial.

Editors might not allow me to praise Peronard in a newspaper story for having have the guts to stand by his convictions that Grace and the government were wrong and their inaction may have increased the toll of death and misery. He could have easily said that I had misquoted him. He didn’t.

But this a blog and I’m allowed to express my opinions, up to a point.

So label this my opinion: Grace may end up not being held accountable for the tragedy at Libby when this trial is over, but it will not be because Peronard and his gang weren’t doing their jobs.

For updates, check Twitter at asinvestigates.

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February 25, 2009

W.R. Grace succeeds in stifling key government witness

UPDATE: at bottom

It took just minutes for W.R. Grace’s top lawyer to begin denouncing the scientific qualifications of the government’s chief witness and the man who led the government’s efforts to protect the people of Libby from the asbestos that poisoned their small Montana town.

The assault on Paul Peronard by David Bernick was not unexpected.

Paul Peronard and his two medical and scientific sidekicks – Dr. Aubrey Miller and Toxicologist Chris Weis – have long been targets of Grace from almost the moment they arrived in Libby in November 1999.

That trip was ordered by then-Regional EPA Administrator Bill Yellowtail. Their mission, Peronard explained to the jury, was to refute stories in the P-I that reported people in the remote, northwest Montana town were sick and dying because of asbestos contamination from Grace’s nearby vermiculite mine.

Bernick gushed politeness in his questioning of Peronard but wasn’t at all subtle in showing that the 23-year EPA veteran wasn’t a toxicologist, wasn’t an epidemiologist and didn’t personally peer through a microscope and analyzes the type and amount of asbestos in thousands of samples of Libby soil and air.

In reality, it wasn’t much of a effort, because Peronard had never claimed that expertise. He made it clear that he was Libby’s on-scene coordinator and he managed the professionals that had those skills and determined what skills were needed to assess the risk of the asbestos hazard in Libby.

Bernick’s mission was to discredit Peronard, or at least greatly limit what Judge Donald Molloy would permit the emergency-response expert to testify about. If he couldn’t get Peronard tossed out, the least Bernick wanted was to forbid him from testifying as an expert in science issues.

He’s crucial to the prosecution’s case because he was up to his neck in Grace’s actions from the beginning. But of perhaps greater importance, he is believable.

He showed up in Libby, head shaven, diamond studs in his ears and a gallery of tattoos showing. Over the years, he defused crowds of angry, government-hating, militia-loving townsfolk who believe that Peronard never lied to them. Probably as a concession to the U.S. attorney, the earrings are missing and the tats are mostly covered by long-sleeves. The jury should love him and Grace’s lawyers fear it.

Meanwhile, Molloy ordered the jury out and Bernick continued his quest to silence Peronard. He repeatedly asked if he could do X,Y, or Z and Peronard never faltered in explaining that he didn’t have to perform the science needed for Libby’s risk assessment, because he was surrounded by some of the best experts around.

Grace’s lawyer questioned that fairness, sanity, legality (pick one) of using sample results, and other information gathered to justify the cleanup and civil actions against his company in the present criminal case.

Prosecutor Kris McLean and Peronard both said that wasn’t the case. It never happened.

“Give me a break,” Bernick muttered.

Lawyers for the five Grace executives on trial joined the fray. Not only did they want Peronard stifled, they wanted to reopen a debate over precisely what type of asbestos fiber was sickening Libby residents. It was as if the years of legal wrangling, appellate rulings and agreements among Grace, the government and Molloy never happened.

Is the lethal fiber tremolite, or winchite or richterite, the lawyers asked.

Libby residents in the audience squirmed and shook their heads. They’ve heard this debated far too many times. “It’s asbestos and it kills, and Grace knew it,” said Gayla Benefield, an early activist in the fight against Grace.

After almost three hours, the judge volunteered that Peronard had testified before him several times in the past said he that he was clearly the “finest on-scene coordinator in the nation, maybe beyond.”

Nice comment, but a harbinger that Molloy’s next comments weren’t going to be as sweet. They weren’t.

Molloy countered that the defense should be pleased if he ruled that Peronard could only testify on what he did, not why he did it, especially, avoiding that mentions that actions were taken to save lives.

It got to point of indicating which very few paragraphs in the thousands of documents and reports on the assessment and cleanup in Libby could be even discussed by the government.

Grace won. Peronard would not be allowed to testify on any scientific information.

Bernick promised that if Peronad or the prosecution strayed, he’d “be standing up and objecting left, right and center.”

Molloy just glared for a moment, slammed the gavel down and adjourned for lunch.

Peronard, painstakingly spend the remainder of the afternoon recreating a very detailed chronology of the response and cleanup in Libby.

After the jury was excused Molloy allowed the lawyers on both sides to complain about whatever they were unhappy about. (I’ll pass on several snarky comments that race to mind.)

The prosecution gently questioned apparent restrictions on discuss of the actual cleanup of Libby,.

Kevin Cassidy argued that the EPA cleanup and investigation “is this case.”

The defense argued that the government was unfair in allowing Peronard to mention asbestos in dust and soil since this is a Clean Air Act Case.

Molloy suggested that Friday morning would be a fine time to chat about these concerns.

The defense is expected to get its shot at Peronard tomorrow.

Watch for updates on Twitter at “asinvestigates.”

February 24, 2009

Grace lawyer objects to about every question asked

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing — Andrew Schneider @ 17:50

If W.R. Grace lawyer Barbara Harding got a buck each time she leaped out of her chair to object to a question the prosecution had asked their witness, she probably would have made more today than the $40 each juror got paid to serve at the largest environmental crime trial in history.

Depending on which side of the Missoula courtroom you sat, Harding was either tenacious or obnoxious. But regardless of what you call her, she was doing what any good defense lawyer would do and that’s keeping the opposition from straying from what the judge says the trial is all about.

In this case, that path is very narrow.

To the pain of many Libby residents in the spectators seats, the government cannot address the decades of dangerous working practices at Grace’s mine on Zonolite Mountain. Nor can prosecutors discuss that the world-wide chemical company reportedly allowed thousands of pounds of asbestos fibers from dust being spewed from a vermiculite processing mill six miles away to inundate the tiny town of Libby.

Rather, the government must focus only on harm that occurred after the federal Clean Air Act and its “knowing-endangerment” provision was enacted in 1990.

Harding repeatedly interrupted the questioning by federal prosecutors Kris McLean and Kevin Cassidy and griped that the question wasn’t relevant.

Judge Donald Molloy played referee in his long, black robe and told McLean and Cassidy to “be precise about the dates these events happened.” But more than half the time, Molloy overruled Grace’s second chair lawyer and allowed the question to be answered

The jury got its first peak at some Libby residents reportedly sickened from exposure to asbestos at the mine, in the air or soil or from the Zonolite insulation leaking into the house.

Kelly O’Brien, who worked at a mental health center in Libby, told jurors that the vermiculite was all over.
“When the washer or drier were on the spin cycle, it would shake the insulation from the ceiling and there would be piles of dust on the machine,” he explained.

Seven of the witnesses said they had asbestos-related diseases, four had lost spouses or siblings.

Vernon Riley told of his wife, Darlene, dying of mesothelioma.
“I had her just 2 ½ years after she learned she had that cancer,” he said, his soft voice cracking.

Defense lawyer Harding asked every male whether they’d ever changed brakes on their own car or truck, a common chore for men and boys in the West. She asked three witnesses if they knew that brakes contained asbestos.

This is an amazing admission for someone representing a company that sold asbestos, because in courtrooms though out the country, the asbestos industry had denied for years that asbestos in brakes is harmful.

Check my updates on Twitter asinvestigates

February 23, 2009

Grace asbestos trial will be hard-fought by feds and company

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 21:43

It has been years in the making, and many people, especially those in Libby, Mont., never thought it would happen, but the W.R. Grace & Co. criminal trial has finally started. It began in the federal courthouse in Missoula with six hours of arguments on why the five men and seven women in the jury should vote with whichever side was speaking at the moment.

Here’s a link to tomorrow’s PI story.

I have been chasing the technical, legal and regulatory issues surrounding the asbestos poisoning of thousands of people in Libby since the Seattle P-I broke the story a decade ago. And I didn’t understand some of the arguments that the prosecution and defense were making.

Oh, do I pity the jurors, and it’s only the first day.

Both sides addressed many of the same Grace corporate documents, letters, memos and reports. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean and Kevin Cassidy, senior lawyer for the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section, spoke of many, saying each was proof of criminal action by Grace and many of its officials and executives. David Bernick, who heads Grace’s legal team, told the jury that many of the identical pieces of paper proves his client’s innocence.

I watched Libby activist Gayla Benefield and Norita Skranstad cringe at many of Bernick’s assertions.

Norita with Les's hat

Norita with Les's hat

What hurt was watching Noritia clutching the cowboy hat that belonged to Les, her husband.

The sweet-voiced singing cowboy and Libby miner called me on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2007. He said he wasn’t going to live to see “Grace held accountable” and made me promise that someone would take his favorite hat to the trial. He died of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, 24 days later.

It hurt seeing that.

But back to what else happened today.

The courtroom style of McLean and Bernick differ as greatly as their individual missions on U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s battlefield.

McLean has done an exquisite job of bringing the criminal allegations from an investigation to two runs at the grand jury, through the dangerous brier patch that needed to be navigated to appease the judge and finally before the jury today. He’s solid and knowledgeable, and like most federal prosecutors, he shuns glitzy playing for the jury. Unfortunately, it showed.

Watching Bernick during his two-hour opening statement, it was quickly apparent why Grace is paying him $800 to $1,000 an hour, plus.

He used huge, colorful charts, almost constant hand gestures and expressions, raising and lowering his voice to emphasize his view or discredit a point made by the government. The jury hung on almost every word. Quite a showman.

Let’s hope the jury appreciates substance over style.

February 19, 2009

Toxic crusader still scorned by small town politicians

If there were a poster child for the overused saying that “no good deeds go unpunished,” it would be Patty Martin.

Chuck Allen, a reporter for the Quincy Valley Post Register, wrote a story today about the Quincy City Council unanimously tdefeating the appointment of former mayor Martin as the city recreation director.

You’ve got to read Allen’s story to see why this is so absurd.

Regrading the vote, Martin told the reporter that, “I’m sorry I’m such a threat. It wasn’t about whether or not I could do the job. It’s about making sure a person who stood up to do the right thing and against something that was illegal doesn’t have a voice.”

It was a decade ago that Martin, then the mayor of Quincy, Washington, a 2-square-mile town about 160 miles east of Seattle, took on the agri-chemical industry.
She was worried about the harm to consumers and farm workers that might come from the very common practice of using industrial waste as fertilizer on the potatoes, apples, wheat, corn and vegetables produced on the hundreds of thousand of irrigated areas in the Quincy Valley.

She and some concerned farmers found that there was illegal dumping of hazardous waste, which, because of bizarre EPA rules magically became “safe” when it was called fertilizer.

Many local farmers hated her. Major agricultural chemical companies expressed evil wishes about her well being. Her enemies included global corporations feared her crusade would somehow get the attention of the outside world and USDA and EPA might crack down on the dangerous practice.

Restraint and subtly were unheard of in the assaults on her and her farmers.

Duff Wilson, one of the nation’s best investigative reporters, worked for the Seattle Times when he learned of the mayor’s battle. For months he chased the story and did a fantastic job of documenting the toxic dangers and corporate and government shenanigans surrounding this public health atrocity. He was a finalist for Pulitzer Prize for public servive for his work.

Wilson’s 2001 book, Fateful Harvest, gets to the heart of an environmental crime that continues today, albeit somewhat better hidden.

I covered hearings and public meetings where policy makers in EPA headquarters used Martin’s findings and Wilson’s work to try to halt the toxic waste shell game. However, the Bush White House, buckled to the agri-chemcial lobby and ordered the OMB to stifle the new regulations.

Today, Wilson, who is doing his reporting magic for the New York Times, told me that Martin “helped expose and reform” the dangerous practice.

“As a result of her calling this to public attention when she was mayor of Quincy eight years ago, many states reformed their fertilizer rules and set limits on these so-called toxic tag-alongs in fertilizer,” Wilson wrote me in an email.

“It’s sad for me to see that (she) continues to suffer retaliation in her hometown for trying to make fertilizer, farming and food safer.”

For more of the story on what Martin did and Wilson wrote, check out this link and ask how much of this is still happening.

February 18, 2009

Nuke cops want a tally of missing radioactive EXIT signs.

Here’s something else to worry about.

It seems the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has become a bit concerned about the security or, at least the location of, hundreds of thousands of glow-in-the-dark exit signs that are being used throughout the country.

This week, the NRC sent a notice to 61 corporations and organizations possessing 500 or more of the signs � ranging from Boeing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City to Wal-Mart stores. They were asked to determine where their exit signs are and to report any that are lost or missing to the government.

The signs contain the radioactive gas tritium and are visible if the power fails in variety of public and private office buildings, theaters, stores, schools and churches � anywhere the public needs to get out quickly.

The nuclear cops say, “Tritium EXIT signs pose little or no threat to public health and safety and do not constitute a security risk.” But the feds added that proper handling and recordkeeping are important, because a damaged or broken sign could cause mild radioactive contamination of the immediate vicinity, requiring a potentially expensive clean up.

The NRC’s action follows officials of Wal-Mart stores admitting that a year-long audit by the corporation found that about 15,000 tritium exit signs of the 70,000 Wal-Mart had purchased over the years were lost, missing or otherwise unaccounted for.

Knowing that you’d want to know, I asked Homeland Security how much of a radioactive problem would be created if a bunch of these signs were blown up.

And, of course, and rightly so, a spokesperson in Washington said “You don’t really expect me to answer that do you?”

More orders tie hands of prosecution in W.R. Grace trial

About 840 people have made the effort to comment on my story Monday on U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy’s ruling that victims of alleged criminal actions by W.R. Grace cannot testify at and observe the nation’s largest environmental criminal trial ever.

His Honor says that people from Libby, Mont., who are sick, lost a loved one or had their homes destroyed because of the asbestos that spewed from a now-closed W.R. Grace vermiculite mine are not victims of crime and cannot observe and participate in the trial which begins next week.

About 99 percent of those comments felt that the judge was wrong. Very, very wrong, most said, in words not fit for a family blog.

Gayla Benefield sputtered angrily for two days before she calmed down enough to share her opinion on Molloy’s action.

“Our lives have been shortened, our loved ones have died and yet we still need to ‘prove’ that a crime has been committed against us! This is outrageous and an insult to the hundreds killed and the thousands who are diagnosed with this disease as a result of being collateral damage to a greedy company,” says Benefield, who claims that more than 40 members of her extended family have been sickened or killed from exposure to the asbestos in the ore from Grace’s operation.

Most of those commenting accused Molloy of a litany of sins. Extreme bias on behalf of Grace was among the mildest. Many said nothing else could or should be expected from a judge appointed for life by George Bush. In the spirit of accuracy, however, I must advise that it was President Clinton that brought Molloy to the federal bench.

Nevertheless, the chief judge continues to give his critics more reasons for vitriol. In a motion filed right after the one restricting the rights of crime victims from Libby, Molloy pumped out another five-page order restricting precisely what the government may and may not say in its opening argument Monday, and how and in what order it presents its own witnesses. Further, it reminded the government that it is forbidden to use the words “victim” or “tremolite” (the type of asbestos found in Grace’s vermiculite) in its opening statement.

I’m told that under federal law, it’s legal for Molloy to inflict these restriction on the government. But six current and former prosecutors that I questioned today say they have never encountered a case where a judge actually ordered this.

“The order is an accurate statement of the law, but I have never seen a judge issue an order like it,” said Andrew King-Ries, a former Seattle prosecutor and now a law professor at the University of Montana.

“The attorneys in this case – on both sides – are experienced professionals and should fully understand the purpose of opening statement,” said the professor.

Two of the other prosecutors noted something in Molloy’s order that they found equally bizarre. Court orders are usually written in the third person. In this fodder for law school debate, Molloy writes: “Federal rules of evidence 611 gives me the discretion,” rather than “gives the court the discretion.”

It has lawyers all a-twitter, but since His Honor doesn’t have to explain what he does, especially to the press, we’ll never know what’s behind it.
Here’s his order. Please let me know if it makes more sense to you.

February 17, 2009

Toxic pet toys from China are still for sale

Filed under: Government & corporate wrong-doing,Random observations — Andrew Schneider @ 09:06

Pet lovers got a shock a couple of years ago when an investigation by Consumer Affairs discovered that many of the pet toys made in China contained toxic heavy metals or other dangerous substances.

I should know better, but for some reason I believed that the Food and Drug Administration cracked down on these poisonous playthings. Of course, that’s not the case. Several major pet supply chains promised to be more diligent but, at best, that’s hit or miss.
Last month, when I had one of my three labs at the vet, I listened to one of the techs passionately telling a pet owner that the reason her splotchy and almost bald cat was suffering was because of a reaction to toxic material in a Chinese-made scratching pole she’d bought at a warehouse store.

Then this week, I saw a story by Cheryl Bentley of The Suncoast News warning of similar problems.

In the interest of helping you keep your pets alive and avoid a mortgage-breaking vet bill, I thought I’d raise the issue again.

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