andrew schneider investigates

May 5, 2009

Testimony in W.R. Grace trial ends as defense fails again to prove that EPA’s top emergency response wizard was a cowboy who made bad decisions.

Cutting two expert witnesses they had earlier said were vital to their case, the defense in the W.R. Grace criminal trial rested today at 3:10 p.m. and judge Donald Molloy quickly headed to chambers with the lead lawyers to discuss the upcoming public debate over the final instructions to the jury.

The last witness in the 10-week-long ordeal went to one who deserved the honor of having the last word– Paul Peronard. He started and headed the EPA’s emergency response in Libby and had the integrity to push for the criminal investigation that led to this trial. He also started the trial as the prosecution’s lead-off expert.

What was bizarre today was that Peronard was called by the defense. The prosecution had wanted to call him back to the stand to address a few points raised last week by Grace’s top spokesman, William Corcoran.  Grace’s top lawyer, David Bernick, first opposed the idea, then made it his own.

At one point Tuesday,  Bernick was rubbing his hands together in anticipation.  He was going to take another shot at discrediting Peronard, showing him to be a cowboy who was scorned by his EPA bosses in Washington.

Bernick first tried to get Peronard to admit that he thought of himself as a “king,” a statement attributed to him during earlier testimony.

Peronard had been asked, cajoled and pressured – nicely and often — to return to Libby after his initial stint there as on-scene coordinator to try to sort out the disputes and non-stop peeing matches over the cleanup of homes and property that had erupted after his departure.

Not one to blow his own horn, all Peronard would tell Bernick was that he wanted to ensure that he would have enough authority to get the job done.

Bernick let it drop and went on to the issue he thought would blow the on-scene coordinator out of the water.

Waving them like a flag, Bernick held up copies of email from John Malone, a member of EPA’s headquarters’ staff,  criticizing the actions and recommendations of Peronard and his teammates, Dr. Aubrey Miller and toxicologist Chris Weis.

Malone didn’t like the Libby team  and did not have much good to say about EPA Region 8 in Denver, where the Libby operation came from. He repeatedly denounced plans to remove dangerous Zonolite Attic Insulation from Libby homes and charged that Miller and Weis were using bogus science.

Bernick was almost lustful as he tried to get Peronard to admit that Malone’s e-mails were proof that headquarters opposed the team’s plans.
Not so, Peronard said again and again as Bernick repeated the same question.  Malone, Peronard said, did not speak for headquarters

What Peronard did not explain (probably because it’s not his style) were the reasons underlying Malone’s efforts to stifle the Libby operation. Peronard and his colleagues knew that Malone had headed the crucial, and embarrassing, 1982 and 1985 EPA studies of the tainted vermiculite from Libby. Rather than take actions to order Grace to stop exposing it workers, their family members and the town to lethal levels of asbestos, Malone stuck the reports on a shelf.

No one knows if lives could have been saved if Malone had paid attention to the very real dangers clearly flagged in the studies he babysat.

Peronard also didn’t tell the jury that at the same time that Malone was writing e-mails denouncing his team, EPA’s administrator was awarding Miller, Weis and Peronard for their outstanding work.

Peronard was permitted to leave and the judge told the jury: “I believe you have heard all the testimony you’re going to hear in this case.”

Smiles lit up the faces in the jury box.


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