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Trial set May 15, 2006 in Grace case

| March 10, 2005 11:00 PM

The federal conspiracy case against W.R. Grace and seven company executives has been set for trial May 15, 2006.

The date was decided during a conference hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Missoula, according to a press release from Montana's U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer. Judge Donald Malloy presided over the pretrial conference.

Also, the seventh Grace executive indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice entered a plea of not guilty in an appearance on Tuesday in federal court in Missoula.

William McCaig, former Libby mine general manager, faces one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States. If convicted, McCaig faces up to 5 years in prison.

The six other Grace employees charged and the charges against them, and who pleaded not guilty in February, are: Alan Stringer, manager of the mine when it closed in 1990; Henry Eschenbach, former health official for a Grace subsidiary; Jack Wolter, a former executive for Grace's construction products division; Robert Bettacchi, a senior vice president of Grace; O. Mario Favorito, chief legal counsel for Grace; and Robert Walsh, former Grace vice president.

W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite mine seven miles north of Libby for about 30 years. The ore was processed into attic insulation at processing plants in Libby and numerous other locations throughout the United States. The vermiculite is contaminated with toxic tremolite asbestos.

The indictment alleges the defendants, starting in the late 1970s, had knowledge of the toxic nature of tremolite asbestos in its vermiculite through internal epidemiological, medical and toxicological studies, as well as through product testing.

The indictment also alleges the company and its high-level employees obstructed the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health when it tried to study health conditions at the mine in the 1980s.

Despite the knowledge gained from internal studies, the indictment alleges, W.R. Grace and its officials distributed asbestos-contaminated vermiculite and allowed it to be used throughout the Libby community.

When the EPA responded to reports of asbestos contamination in and around Libby in 1999, according to the indictment, Grace maintained its policy of deception.

"W.R. Grace and its officials continued to mislead and obstruct the government by not disclosing, as they were required to do by federal law, the true nature and extent of the asbestos contamination," according to the indictment.

According to the 10-count indictment, about 1,200 Libby-area residents have suffered some kind of asbestos-related abnormality.

Besides covering up the health effects, the defendants also are accused of obstructing the government's clean-up efforts as well as with wire fraud.

Since the EPA began its investigation, the area has been declared a Superfund site. More than $55 million has been spent so far on cleanup.