Libby, Montana—On Monday, March 16th, a key medical witness in the federal trial of W.R. Grace was excused from the stand. Dr. Aubrey Miller had testified over the course of three and a half days, during which time defense lawyers tried to cast doubts upon his credibility.
Federal prosecutors allege that W.R. Grace, a specialty chemicals and materials company, exposed the residents of Libby, Montana to asbestos-tainted vermiculite. A number of Libby residents have been diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the membrane that surrounds the lungs. An aggressive form of cancer with a long latency period, mesothelioma is usually linked to asbestos exposure.
Defense attorneys in the case claim the Environmental Protection Agency began studying the asbestos-containing vermiculite in 1980, with subsequent studies continuing through the 1980s and into the early 1990s. Despite their concern over the asbestos levels in the community, the government took no action, defense attorneys state.
Dr. Miller, a member of the emergency response team dispatched to Libby by the EPA in 1999, had testified that in previous asbestos-related diseases, high concentrations of asbestos fibers had been found dispersed throughout the community – not just at the mine. Additionally, he testified that W.R. Grace had conducted its own product safety tests and become aware of the asbestos contamination and its potential hazards. W.R. Grace, claimed Miller, had hidden the information from not only Libby residents but also from its own employees.
Defense attorney Thomas Frongillo accused Miller of withholding information about the varieties of asbestos to which Libby’s population had been exposed. According to a study introduced as evidence earlier in the trial, the bulk of asbestos found in the vermiculite in Libby was composed of Winchite and Richterite asbestos – two types that were not regulated at the time of the exposure. Dr. Miller’s response was that “As far as I’m concerned, this is all asbestos.”
After repeated attempts to discredit Miller, defense lawyers were granted the unusual opportunity to re-cross the doctor. Re-crossing, or a second round of cross-examination, is rarely allowed in federal trials.
Nearly 2,000 Libby residents have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer. Two hundred of those residents have died as a result of the asbestos-related diseases. Dr. Miller, who practices in the Libby area, had previously informed the court that he continues to make diagnoses related to the asbestos exposure at the rate of one new case per week.