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.