Missoula, MT—The trial of construction and mining giant W.R. Grace and Co. continues, and its judge recently excluded most of the evidence that had been introduced by prosecutors.
Of 53 exhibits that the prosecutors had submitted, only 7 will be allowed, ruled U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy. Most of the evidence consists of documents, including memos written by high-ranking Grace officials.
Five former Grace executives are also named in the federal suit, which accuses the company of exposing the residents of Libby, MT to hazardous levels of asbestos resulting from their vermiculite mining business. Some of the documents that prosecutors wanted to introduce as evidence were memos or other correspondence written by these five former executives.
The memos, which discuss health studies that were conducted on the miners by internal Grace researchers, warn that if they public knew about the studies and their results, expensive litigation could result. The correspondence also advise that the company not comply with an investigation conducted by the EPA.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said that the evidence further proves that Grace officials understood, at an early date, the dangers of vermiculite, and the company’s role and culpability in distributing the vermiculite-contaminated materials. In addition to mining the asbestos-containing materials, the company also donated piles of vermiculite for use at the town’s recreational facilities, and distributed it free of charge to town citizens for use as garden mulch.
In the lawsuit, the government claims that the company knowingly endangered the people of Libby, in an elaborate cover-up scheme that was intended to protect Grace’s profits.
Judge Molloy, however, said that the documents raise a risk of undue prejudice and a “confusion of issues” regarding the law. He also expressed concern that most of the documents are decades old and don’t relate to the criminal statues of the Clean Air Act, which weren’t enacted until 1990. Therefore, he said, this evidence is less relevant to a criminal trial than to a products liability claim.
He also said that the prosecutors were deliberately attempting to mislead jurors, since the exhibits, while they do show that Grace officials knew of the dangers of the vermiculite in Libby, did not prove the officials’ intention of defrauding the government or violating Clean Air Act provisions.
Exposure to asbestos is the only known cause of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer which affects the tissues surrounding the lungs, heart and stomach. Mesothelioma can manifest itself as long as 50 years after the initial exposure, by which time it is incurable. Hundreds of people in the Libby area have been diagnosed with, or died from, mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.