Federal prosecutors yesterday charged W.R. Grace & Co. with exposing mine workers and residents in a small mountain community in Montana to deadly asbestos and covering up the danger.
The Columbia-based chemical manufacturer stands accused of breaking environmental laws and obstructing justice by misleading government officials probing the widespread contamination. The company allegedly buried a paper trail dating back to 1976 that traced how asbestos dust from its mine had permeated the lungs of workers, their family members and even residents who jogged on the high school running track in Libby, Mont.
Dorothy Kittilson and husband Wayne used oxygen for asbestosis. Wayne died a month after this photo was taken. Dorothy said her first husband also died from asbestosis.
(Photos Chris Jordan For The Washington Post)
Seven current and former employees also were charged with participating in the conspiracy.
The death rate from asbestos in Libby and surrounding areas is 40 to 80 times higher than elsewhere in the state and the nation, according to the indictment filed yesterday. A rare type of cancer that normally occurs in nine in a million individuals shows up in at least 20 of the approximately 8,000 residents of the area, according to the indictment.
In 1977, an animal study commissioned by Grace linked the type of asbestos from the mine to cancer, according to court papers. The company did not tell its workers what it had found, prosecutors alleged. Although Grace improved safety measures after it bought the plant, prosecutors now allege they were not sufficient.
Even after learning about the cancer link, Grace donated mining scraps to the local high school to pave its running track. In 1981, a Grace employee sampled dust kicked up by runners and told Grace in writing that he found "surprisingly high" levels of asbestos fibers. Grace resurfaced the track later that year, but according to the indictment, the company "failed to completely remove" the contaminants.
Montana U.S. Attorney William W. Mercer said in an interview that what happened in Libby amounted to a "human environmental tragedy" for which Grace and several top officials must be held accountable. Environmental Protection Agency officials say the Libby mine, which has been designated a federal Superfund site, marks one of the most significant health disasters they have ever faced.
Grace, which filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2001 because it was facing thousands of asbestos claims nationwide, denies the charges. "Grace categorically denies criminal wrongdoing," the company said in a prepared statement. "We look forward to setting the record straight in a court of law."
Executives charged in some of the counts include three current Grace employees: former mine manager Alan R. Stringer, who now represents Grace in the Superfund cleanup; O. Mario Favorito, who was former corporate legal counsel and is now assistant secretary; and senior vice president Robert J. Bettacchi. Four former executives also were charged: Henry A. Eschenbach, Jack W. Wolter, William J. McCaig and Robert C. Walsh.
Attorneys representing Stringer, Favorito, Wolter and Walsh disputed the charges against their clients. Lawyers for the other men could not be reached for comment. Mercer said the company and the seven individual defendants could make their first court appearance as early as next month.