Montana Asbestos Trial Targets W.R. Grace
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
The EPA called the asbestos poisoning in Libby, Montana, the most horrific environmental disaster in the country's history. More than 200 deaths and thousands of illnesses have been linked to a vermiculite mine in that town. And for the last seven weeks, five former executives of the chemical company W.R. Grace have been on trial in federal criminal court in Missoula, Montana. They're being prosecuted on charges of conspiracy and violating the Clean Air Act.
At issue, did the company knowingly expose workers and residents to asbestos from that vermiculite mine? And did they conspire to conceal the dangers?
Tristan Scott has been covering the trial for the Missoulian newspaper.
And, Tristan, the government's going to be wrapping up its case pretty soon. It cut back on its witness list. What is the crux of the prosecution's case?
TRISTAN SCOTT: Well, the prosecution in the case, and they've been plodding along for about 25 days now, so everybody's feeling a little bit battle weary. So far, jurors have heard about these reams of data that Grace gathered about the hazards of its vermiculite products, and about how Grace executives understood those dangers through extensive product testing and air sampling, soil sampling, and even mortality studies on Libby workers.
There's also been testimony from a chest doctor who's diagnosed 1,800 Libby residents with asbestos-related disease. There's also been testimony from little leaguers who played on the local ballfields who are now sick, because Grace lined the base pads with vermiculite, which contained asbestos. And other residents who said they used to play on piles of the vermiculite around town or put in their gardens and lawns.
BLOCK: Well, last week, the federal judge, Donald Malloy, who's hearing this case got very impatient with the prosecutors. With the jury out of the courtroom, he had some very sharp words for the government. What did he say?
SCOTT: Well, Judge Malloy, outside of the jurors' presence, issued a very stern rebuke to prosecutors telling them that their conspiracy theory was not coming to fruition. And he admonished them to move their case along. The prosecutors have presented a lot of internal documents spelling out these hazards of asbestos in Libby. But Malloy says that a bunch of names on the copy lines of corporate memos don't prove a conspiracy. To do that, the prosecutors have to show proof that the defendants made an actual agreement to commit a crime. And so far, Malloy says prosecutors haven't been able to show that.
BLOCK: When it's time for the defense to present its case, how do you expect them to do that, to try to fight back this conspiracy charge?
SCOTT: Well, the defense, a major theme of the defense so far has been that government prosecutors are misleading the jurors. And I think what they'll do is they've already announced that they'll present a former Grace executive who's not on trial, who's going to refute a lot of the testimony that the government prosecutors have presented.
BLOCK: Is part of W.R. Grace's defense also that - look, the dangers were widely known in the timeframe that this trial is considering. There is no cover up here, even the government knew about the dangers of this asbestos.
SCOTT: That's exactly right. The numerous studies had been disclosed to the EPA about mortality rates in Libby, as well as the harmful nature of this vermiculite and its propensity to release asbestos fibers. This Libby vermiculite crumbles very easily and the asbestos fibers become airborne.
BLOCK: Tristan, this case of Libby, Montana, is so notorious in the state. Are people there following this trial very closely?
SCOTT: Yeah, I think they are. In the courtroom there's been a pretty regular cast of characters: Libby residents who have asbestos-related disease, activists who have long said that Grace should be held criminally accountable for its actions. And just around Western Montana, I think there's a lot of interest that's been generated by the trial.
That said, it's not as cinematic as I think a lot of people thought it would be. There's a lot of long, tedious testimony about scientific sampling and there's been a lot of that kind of testimony.
Tristan Scott is a reporter for the Missoulian newspaper in Missoula, Montana.
Tristan, thanks so much.
SCOTT: Thank you, Melissa.
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