Mining Company Accused Of Endangering Workers

Federal prosecutors say chemical company W.R. Grace knowingly endangered the health of workers at its min in Libby, Mont. Andrew Schneider, senior investigative correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, says the company's defense is that everyone was aware of the contamination.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Decades of deadly asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, have led to a long-awaited criminal trial that began this week. The chemical company W.R. Grace and five former executives are on trial, charged with conspiracy and violations of the Clean Air Act.

Federal prosecutors say the company knowingly endangered the health of workers at its vermiculite mine and other residents of Libby. And they conspired to conceal the dangers. The asbestos contamination is believed to have killed at least 200 people and sickened hundreds more.

Reporter Andrew Schneider first broke the story a decade ago for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and he's been in the Montana courtroom this week as the criminal trial gets underway.

Andrew Schneider, welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDREW SCHNEIDER (Reporter, Seattle Post-Intelligencer): Thank you, Melissa. It's good to be back.

BLOCK: The EPA has called what happened in Libby the most horrific environmental disaster in this country's history. Why don't you remind us of what's known about the extent of asbestos poisoning in Libby?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: The town is fairly well saturated with vermiculite tailings from the mine, which was six miles away. For years, as much as 5,000 pounds of asbestos fibers a day floated down on top of Libby. The EPA has been cleaning up - or attempting to clean up - the homes, the schools, the parks for years now. Hundreds of millions have already been spent.

More people continue to die from cancers attributed to the asbestos in the vermiculite. The physicians that run the clinics for the people in Libby talk about 20, 30, 40 more people every month coming in with symptoms of the disease.

BLOCK: When you and I spoke last year, W.R. Grace had just agreed to a record settlement to pay for some of the cleanup that you just mentioned. In this criminal case against the company, what does the government have to prove?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: The government has been restricted to a very, very narrow path, and it deals with violations of the Clean Air Act and the knowing endangerment provisions of that act, which were instituted in 1990. So all of the environmental atrocities that Grace is alleged to have committed during the 30 years it owned the Zonolite Mine really don't come into play. The government's got to show that since the Clean Air Act was passed, Grace knowingly concealed the dangers from the government and the community.

BLOCK: And what's W.R. Grace's defense?

Mr. SCHNEIDER: That they're innocent. That it is a horrible tragedy, but there really is no great danger in the products that they produce. They've maintained that all along. They continue to maintain it in court.

BLOCK: Andrew, over the years that you've been following this story, you've gotten to know a number of the victims who've suffered terrible effects from this asbestos poisoning. And this week, you wrote about the widow of one of those victims, mine worker Les Skramstad who died last year. His widow has been attending this trial.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, Norita has. And he was an amazing guy, a soft-spoken, sweet-singing cowboy, had a great voice until the - until his lungs went. He brought - he worked at the mine. He brought the contaminants home on his work clothes. The kids hugged him. Norita washed the clothes. Now Norita has the disease, and at least three of his four kids do. And he will - you know, he would never have forgiven himself for what he did to his family.

So, yeah, she's sitting in court. She has Les's cowboy hat. He made some of us promise that if he died - and he knew he was going to die before the trial -that they at least bring his hat there.

BLOCK: So his hat has been at the trial.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: His hat has been at the trial.

BLOCK: Andrew Schneider, thanks very much.

Mr. SCHNEIDER: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: Andrew Schneider with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, covering the trial of W.R. Grace and company executives, in Missoula, Montana.

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