W.R. Grace, 3 execs aquitted in asbestos case
MISSOULA, Mont. — W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted Friday of federal charges that they knowingly allowed residents of northwestern Montana town to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine.
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 endangered 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.
“We always believed that Grace and its former executives had acted properly and that a jury would come to the same conclusion when confronted with the evidence,” the statement said.
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.
“I’m grateful and happy to go home,” said Wolter, who is retired and lives in Palm Desert, Calif.
Gayla Benefield of Libby, who suffers health effects from asbestos exposure and lost both parents to asbestos-related lung diseases, said she doesn’t know what the next step will be.
“They have gotten away with murder. That’s all I can say,” she said.
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 “so they could continue making money as well as avoid liability,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said during Wednesday’s 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.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Fehr of Billings, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department in Montana, declined comment because “one individual awaits trial in connection with this case.”
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.