Grace trial in Mont. delayed

August 30, 2006|By Allison Connolly | Allison Connolly,Sun reporter

A federal judge has postponed next month's criminal trial of Columbia-based W.R. Grace & Co. and several of its executives in a case in which hundreds of residents in a Montana town became seriously ill from exposure to asbestos from a former Grace mine.

The trial was to start Sept. 11 in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., but is on hold after federal prosecutors appealed three pretrial rulings by U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy which they say undermine their case.

The government says more than 1,200 of Libby's 8,000 residents have become sick and some have died from exposure to asbestos-laden dust from the mine, which workers carried home on their clothes and spread throughout the town. The material also was used in building the high school running track and an elementary school ice skating rink.

Grace and executives named in the indictment are accused of covering up the extent of asbestos contamination, and of obstructing regulators from investigating.

Prosecutors are appealing a ruling by Molloy on July 27 to dismiss part of the conspiracy charge that alleges Grace executives knowingly endangered residents of Libby. Molloy ruled that a five-year statute of limitations had run out.

The other two rulings relate to asbestos evidence that Molloy won't allow prosecutors to introduce in court. U.S. Attorney William W. Mercer said the August rulings had the "practical effect" of excluding much of the government's evidence relevant to the Clean Air Act crimes charged in the indictment, prosecutors argued in filings last week. The appeal is a "last resort," Mercer said in the filings.

Despite his desire for a "speedy and efficient resolution" to the case, Molloy wrote in Monday's filing that the trial is on hold, pending the outcome of the appeals in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Prosecutors have asked the 9th Circuit to take up the appeals immediately.

Grace officials declined to comment yesterday. Molloy has directed all parties not to discuss the case publicly. The seven former and current executives have pleaded not guilty, and Grace denies the charges.

Grace operated the mine between 1963 and 1990. The Environmental Protection Agency began investigating reports of health problems related to asbestos-contamination in Libby in November 1999.

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