There is a little environmental lawsuit that is setting the stage for some big repercussions starting this week. It pits the people of a small Montana mining town against a major chemical company facing federal charges of poisoning their homes and schools with asbestos.
Opening statements are scheduled in the case of U.S. vs. W.R. Grace and Co. and five of its executives, who are charged with knowingly exposing the residents of the town of Libby to the fibrous mineral linked to cancer.
The case stems from the mining for vermiculite from Zonolite Mountain near Libby. The mineral was then processed into products used for plumbing insulation, fireproofing and gardening. Mining began in 1920 and continued for about 70 years. The company’s “Zonolite” brand insulation is in some 35 million homes in the United States.
"This trial is one of the most complex and creative criminal prosecutions in the history of environmental regulation," said Andrew King-Ries, an assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Law.
The problem is that the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers, which can be inhaled and can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.
Libby residents believe the pollution has killed at least 225 people and sickened about 2,000 more in the area.
U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has placed a gag order on the parties involved, but court documents are revealing.
"The defendants in this case knew the dangers of asbestos they released into the Libby, Montana air, yet they concealed the dangers, putting local residents at risk while enriching themselves," prosecutors said in their trial brief.
Lawyers for Maryland-based W.R. Grace deny their clients conspired to release asbestos, arguing that most of the releases occurred years before an applicable law was passed in 1990.
"The government has illogically charged that the defendants conspired in 1976 to violate a statute that would not exist for another 14 years," Grace said in its trial brief.
Libby is a town of about 2,600 people located in a forested valley of the Cabinet Mountains, about 100 miles northwest of Missoula, Mont.