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W.R. Grace's federal trial date draws closer

| February 2, 2009 11:00 PM

The Western News

Eighty northwest Montanans were mailed summons letters last week as potential jurors in a criminal case against W.R. Grace & Co. and six former and current executives.

The U.S. District Court in Missoula will begin jury selection Feb. 19 in Missoula. Twelve jurors and a yet-to-be determined number of alternates will be chosen to arbitrate on a complex criminal case that is estimated to last for months.  

More than 30 defense attorneys – nine representing W.R. Grace and the others representing individual defendants – will try to disprove that the company knowingly endangered Libby-area residents by exposing them to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from its mine.

In the four years since a grand jury indicted W.R. Grace on charges of conspiracy, violating the Clean Air Act and obstruction, the case made its way from U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy to the U.S. Supreme Court and back to Molloy.

Before the trial begins, Molloy will rule on the admissibility of scientific studies and expert witnesses that the defense stated in last month’s two-day evidentiary hearing should be suppressed.

In 2006 Molloy ruled in favor of the defense on several essential issues, throwing out the “knowing endangerment” portion of the conspiracy charge, excluding government asbestos testing based on a discrepancy in the Clean Air Act’s definition of “asbestos,” and allowing defendants to present a case of being in compliance with Clean Air Act “visible emissions” standards. 

The prosecution took the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned many of Molloy’s decisions and restored vital elements of the prosecutor’s arguments. The defense appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the Ninth Circuit’s decisions and handed the case back to Molloy.

W.R. Grace and individual defendants were indicted by a grand jury in early 2005 for allegedly concealing asbestos-related health risks, possibly known as early as 1976, and lying to government officials when the contamination was discovered in 1999.