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MISSOULA - An expert witness in the government's case against W.R. Grace & Co. testified today that researchers relied on well-founded science when determining the scope of Libby's asbestos contamination, including decades-old "historical studies" overseen by the building materials company itself.

The evidentiary hearing opened with testimony from Christopher Weis, a toxicologist for the Environmental Protection Agency who defended the merit of several studies being contested by attorneys for W.R. Grace. The multinational company is accused of violating the Clean Air Act by releasing asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from a mine in Libby.

One study identified Libby residents who had been exposed to higher concentrations of asbestos-laced vermiculite mined by Grace and detected an increase in lung abnormalities

Weis said those individuals "had played on rope swings and dropped into piles of vermiculite, played on the high school track that was contaminated with ore and mine. Others had worked at the mine and were exposed. Those who delivered materials to the mine, like those who filled the vending machines, were exposed."

But even those people who reported no exposure to the fiber showed signs of asbestos-related lung disease, Weis said, "simply from living in Libby."

An indictment unsealed in February 2005 alleges that W.R. Grace and six former executives knowingly endangered the lives of mine workers and other residents of Libby, where asbestos-related disease has killed an estimated 300 to 400 people. Hundreds more suffer from fatal illnesses.

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U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy has set the case for trial Feb. 19, and this week's evidentiary hearing scheduled to last three days could be the final hurdle before jury selection.

But as government prosecutors fight to preserve their case and bring it to trial intact, dozens of defense lawyers from across the country are poised to erode the case by excluding the presentation of "unqualified" evidence to the jury.

David M. Bernick, an attorney for W.R. Grace, will resume cross-examination of Weis after the lunch recess.

Dozens of lawyers, curious spectators and reporters filled the courtroom galley for Wednesday's "Daubert hearing," so named for the plaintiff in a 1993 case establishing the evidentiary standard.

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