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High court sides with asbestos workers

| December 16, 2004 11:00 PM

The Montana Supreme Court voted 4-3 that the state should have warned Libby miners about dangerous health conditions existing at the W. R. Grace vermiculite mine and milling operations.

However, the state high court ruling said a trial at the district court level is needed to determine if government officials failed to fulfill their responsibility to the miners.

A group of nine Libby miners or their families had filed the suit against the state in August 2002 in Helena district court. The judge concluded the state had no legal duty to the plaintiffs. They appealed to the state high court and it agreed to hear the case on June 26, 2003.

The Supreme Court ruling said the state┬╣s immunity from being sued was removed by the 1972 Montana Constitution. The high court said that Montana law has always required the state to gather information about health problems in the workplace and pass that information on to citizens.

The plaintiffs point to numerous industrial hygiene studies by state authorities through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that revealed high concentrations of asbestos in dust at W.R. Grace facilities. The state was aware of the health risks posed by exposure to the dust but did not warn the workers and the miners of the hazard, the plaintiffs contend.

The recent ruling did not say whether the state did anything wrong or whether it should pay damages. That will have to be determined in a district court trial, the court said.

But the ruling did say that state and federal inspections showed that neither W.R. Grace nor its predecessor, the Zonolite Co., did anything to correct hazardous conditions identified between 1956 and 1964.

The district court ruling was appealed by the plaintiffs, who include Herbert Orr, Robert Graham, Robert Dedrick, Leonard Rice, Donald Smith, Opal Smith, James Jacobson, Royce Ryan and Clayton Riddle.

More than 200 claims have been filed against the state since W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2001.

The dissenting justices said the incidents referred to by the plaintiffs occurred before the new constitution was adopted and therefore the state had immunity from suit.

The EPA responded to newspaper reports in November 1999 of widespread contamination and illness in the Libby area. After investigation, officials with the federal agency have called Libby the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The vermiculite mine and processing mills were owned by W.R. Grace, which ceased Libby operations in 1990. Miners were contaminated working at the mills and the mine while families of the miners were contaminated by dust brought home on the workers┬╣ clothes. In addition, community members were exposed to the lethal dust through as many as 16 different pathways, according to the EPA.

The agency is conducting cleanup efforts in Libby and has said the community is as safe to live in today as any other community in the country.