Processing Magazine

W.R. Grace, three execs acquitted in asbestos case

May 11, 2009
W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted of federal charges that they knowingly allowed residents of the northwestern Montana town of Libby to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine, according to the Associated Press. Attorneys for some residents of the town of Libby blame tremolite asbestos from the vermiculite for about 2,000 cases of illness and about 225 deaths in and around the community. Miners carried asbestos home on their clothes, vermiculite used to cover school running tracks in Libby and some residents used vermiculite as mulch in their home gardens. The company and its one-time heads were accused of knowingly endangering the lives of mine workers and other residents of Libby, and ignoring warnings by state agencies to clean up the vermiculite mining operation. They were also accused of Clean Air Act violations and obstruction of government efforts to address problems in Libby. W.R. Grace released a statement saying the company was "gratified" with the verdict. Charges against two executives were dropped during the trial at the request of prosecutors. The jury then acquitted Henry Eschenbach, Jack Wolter and Robert Bettacchi. Another defendant in the case, Grace in-house lawyer O. Mario Favorito, was scheduled for trial in September. Grace also faces civil cases in which hundreds of Libby residents seek compensation for health problems. The company knew about the health hazards of asbestos, but covered it up Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said during closing arguments. Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct arose during the trial and U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy was visibly frustrated at times, at one point telling prosecutors they did not understand the evidence they were presenting. Grace bought the mine in 1963 and closed it in 1990. Asbestos contamination in Libby led to environmental cleanup and health care services that have become a major economic force in the community once reliant on mining and logging. Cleanup overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cost tens of millions of dollars. The town at the hub of an area with about 10,000 residents now has a health clinic devoted to asbestos-related disease. Libby has held asbestos "health fairs" and a local company got into the business of manufacturing backpack-style carriers for oxygen tanks used to aid the breathing of people with asbestos-scarred lungs.