Thursday, June 01, 2023

Whitehouse, local couple take stand in Grace trial

by Chris D’Angelo & Carmen George & University of Montana
| March 10, 2009 12:00 AM

The environmental trial of W.R. Grace & Co. and five executives came to a screeching halt on Monday because of an ill juror.

After the morning session was postponed because of the juror’s absence, Judge Donald Molloy returned at 1:15 p.m. to tell the courtroom that the juror was at the doctor’s office. The judge was expecting to receive a call from the doctor as to whether or not he would be well enough to continue in the morning.

Last week, testimony wrapped up from EPA Libby Team Leader Paul Peronard, Dr. Alan Whitehouse and Libby business owners Melvin and Lerah Parker.

Peronard finished the final leg of his testimony Tuesday with continued objections from the defense. His expert testimony was limited by the court, and he focused mostly on the EPA’s actions in Libby and Grace’s role in halting the organization’s cleanup efforts.

Melvin Parker testified, “No one told us there were dangers” with the export plant property they purchased in 1992.

The defense voiced volleys of objections throughout his testimony, and argued that Parker tried to pretend he was unaware of contamination problems so he could collect money for cleanup from Grace and the EPA.

Lerah Parker’s testimony was met with fewer objections. After learning of the asbestos contamination in 1999, she said she was informed by a friend that Grace knew about the problem when they bought the property.

When she later asked Alan Stringer, the general  manager of the Libby mine who sold her the land, if he knew about the health risks when he sold it to them, she said he just set down his coffee and left.

Many photos of vermiculite on their property were also introduced as evidence, though others that showed children playing in the dirt-vermiculite blend drew objections and were not allowed.

Testimony from expert witness Whitehouse capped the week. He discussed the progression of asbestos-related disease in specific patients from Libby, and gave the jury a general overview of what asbestos fibers do to the lungs.

“In Libby we have the highest mesothelioma rate in the nation” due to asbestos, Whitehouse said. “I don’t think we’ll see the last of this prior to 20, 30 years from now.”

The defense countered by admitting documents into evidence that cited different medical opinions from other doctors that had examined some of the same patients.

On Monday, Molloy said the trial would proceed with an alternate if the ill juror could not return on Tuesday.

Molloy used the day to question the prosecution about the relevance of a number of exhibits which the defense objected to during the morning session. The exhibits included both pictures and air samples from around Libby, including the high school track area, the middle school and the skating rink.

“What’s being described in these exhibits is that when you disturb these materials asbestos is released,” said Assistant US Attorney Kris McLean, who assured Molloy that each was designed to illustrate exposures of people at locations described in the indictment.

Following McLean’s initial response to Molloy’s questioning, a number of defense attorneys raised additional concerns regarding the exhibits in question, all of which are to be offered during the testimony of Dr. Aubrey Miller, a toxicologist for the EPA’s Region 8 office in Denver and the government’s next expert-witness.

Defense attorney for W.R. Grace, Scott McMillin, argued that the problem with a number of the air samples is that they are based on worker cleanup and not “normal” activities such as raking or mowing grass.

“They’re (the prosecution) using the most aggressive cleanup methods to show their testing,” he said. “The government is cutting the data every which way they can.”

Court was scheduled to reconvene on Tuesday morning with the testimony of Miller.