The assignment of today’s government witnesses in the criminal trial of W.R. Grace was to bolster the conspiracy charges against the corporate owner of the mine in Libby, Mont. All of those taking the stand in Missoula’s federal courthouse had dealt with the company as it allegedly tried to conceal the danger of the tainted vermiculite its workers pulled out of Zonolite Mountain.
The first to testify were two former officials of what was called the O.M. Scott & Sons Co. – the nationally known plant and turf fertilizer company. They offered a straightforward presentation of what Scott did between 1978 and 1980 when workers at their Marysville, Ohio, plant, 30 miles northwest of Columbus, were diagnosed with bloody plural effusion.
The unpleasant sounding ailment is a dangerous indicator of possible future significant asbestos-related disease such as asbestosis or mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
Grace shipping documents gathered by the EPA show that Scott received more than 4,500 shipments of vermiculite ore from Grace’s mine in Libby. With it came the asbestos contamination that eventually made Scott workers sick.
U.S. Attorney Kris McLean began the questioning Sergeant Chamberlain, who was the purchasing agent and director for Scott for almost half a century. The very white-haired man spoke strongly about being surprised when asbestos warning placards started showing up on the rail cars carrying vermiculite ore from Libby.
Chamberlain said Grace officials told him repeatedly that they were trying to reduce the amount of asbestos contaminating the ore. He said he told them he wanted, “No asbestos. Period.”
The second to take the stand was John Kennedy, former general counsel for Scott. It was interesting watching Grace’s lead lawyer, David Bernick, try and fail to muscle another lawyer during his cross examination.
Bernick showed Kennedy documents from Grace, Scott and the government and asked what they meant. But often Kennedy didn’t give the material the same meaning that the Grace lawyer had hoped for. Bernick could not push Kennedy to agree with his interpretation of what the documents said, especially when it dealt with what the government was told and who did the telling.
Kennedy offered chapter and verse on the help that Grace did offer Scott after the workers got sick, but Scott was their largest single customer.
While the testimony of these particular witnesses were vital to the prosecution’s hope of proving the conspiracy charges, it was just as important to Bernick to show that government was told about the hazard at Libby and at times he scrawled arrows, lines and dates across two white boards on easels that he had to squeeze between.
The next witness to testify was Kathleen Kennedy, an epidemiologist who had worked for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the worker safety research arm for the CDC.
From 1979 to 1981, Kennedy headed the government research team that the U.S. Bureau of Mines and its subsequent agency, the Mine Health and Safety Administration, wanted to study asbestos exposure among Grace workers.
I’ve never seen Bernick so frazzled before. Almost every document he showed Kennedy she said she’d never seen before, and she said she was unable to answer many of the lawyer’s questions because she either wasn’t at the meeting he was referring to or couldn’t recall what it was he wanted her to remember.
The fact that 30 years had passed didn’t make the Grace lawyer any more willing to accept her denial.
She was followed by Dr. Daniel Banks, another colleague from NIOSH
Tomorrow, Dr. James Lockey, who led studies on the workers both at Scott and at the Libby mine, is scheduled to testify.