HELENA – A cadre of journalism and law students from the University of Montana is providing a virtual window on what many are calling the most extensive environmental criminal trial in U.S. history.
Paired together in two-hour shifts, a law student and a journalism student provide daily, continuously updated online coverage of the W.R. Grace & Co. trial in U.S. District Court in Missoula through their blog, http://blog.umt.edu/gracecase.
Communities in Montana and around the country were exposed to asbestos-contaminated ore that W.R. Grace mined and shipped from Libby, Mont. Lawyers for Libby residents contend the pollution has killed some 225 people and sickened about 2,000 in Libby.
Now, W.R. Grace and five former company officials face criminal charges of knowingly endangering lives by hiding the health risks of asbestos.
“The one thing I think is really important about this project is acknowledging that vermiculite ore from Libby was shipped to a couple of dozen states, where processing plants created their own contaminated sites with their own risk-response situation. They’re spread out across the country,” said Nadia White, a professor of journalism at UM and the project’s principal coordinator.
“It’s my hope that those communities find their way to this site,” White said in an interview. “They have as much at stake in watching this unfold as do the people of Libby.”
The trial blog was the brainchild of Andrew King-Ries, an assistant professor in the UM Law School.
“When they set a trial date, I thought this would be a great opportunity for our students and an opportunity to get information out to the public about this important public event,” he said. “I called over to the Journalism School, the dean put me in touch with Nadia White and we started talking.”
At issue in the trial is whether W.R. Grace and the five employees on trial knowingly endangered the lives of people who worked with and lived near facilities that mined, processed and shipped asbestos-contaminated ore from the Grace mine in Libby.
The trial judge, U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy, “has been very amenable to this project,” White said. “He did accredit our class as accredited journalists,” ensuring there would always be two seats available in the media section of the courtroom for the student reporters.
Greg Euston, a spokesman for W.R. Grace, said he could not comment on the student blogging because Molloy has placed a gag order on the parties involved.
In all, 34 students — 17 each from the journalism and law schools — are involved in the trial coverage.
“When I’m in court, I’m supposed to send a tweet (a brief online message) every 10 minutes,” Carly Flandro, a print journalism major at UM, said in an e-mail in response to a reporter’s query. “I usually write one or two blog posts after my shift, which lasts two hours. We can do so from the court, where we sit in the media section equipped with computers and notebooks,”
Flandro said she works a court shift once or twice a week.
The journalism students give an account of what’s going on at the trial, while the law students analyze the courtroom tactics and legal strategies the parties employ.
“We’re able to tell the stories we see unfolding throughout the trial, and then a team of legal experts explains what these stories mean in terms of the law,” said Carmen George, another print journalism major at UM.
The journalism students, mostly undergraduates, are enrolled in an environmental journalism course taught by White, while the graduate law students volunteered in response to an open invitation from King-Ries. All receive academic credit for their trial coverage.
“I don’t do this for the grade, I do this for people across the country who can’t be in Missoula to watch it,” Flandro said. “Most importantly, I do it for community members in Libby who have watched their town erode, one sick person after another.”
The trial began Feb. 23 and is expected to last at least three months.
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