WR Grace Jurors Hear From Sickened Businessman

By Beacon Staff

MISSOULA – Jurors in the environmental trial of W.R. Grace & Co. heard Thursday from a sickened businessman who worked for a lumber company that milled timber alongside Grace’s export plant in Libby.

For years, Melvin Burnett worked for a lumber company that leased property from Grace. Burnett said he purchased the mill in 1989, and Grace transferred the lease agreement over to him without telling him the property was contaminated with harmful tremolite asbestos.

“You could look around and see the sparkles on the ground and some of the flakes,” he said of the asbestos-laced vermiculite mined for decades near the small town.

Columbia, Md.-based Grace and five former executives are charged with knowingly exposing Libby’s residents to asbestos, a substance linked to cancer.

Burnett ran the mill throughout the 1990s before moving to another location in October 2000, nearly a year after workers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arrived to study the asbestos contamination. That means Burnett could have been exposed to asbestos after a 1999 statute of limitations imposed on the government’s case.

He said he spent at least half of his time on the property outdoors, and customers who drove to the mill churned up vermiculite and created dust. Burnett said he learned of the health hazards associated with vermiculite from news reports in 1999 but had nowhere else to run his mill. He also noted that EPA emergency responders didn’t know enough about the asbestos hazards to forcibly remove him.

Earlier Thursday, defense attorneys filed a motion to exclude testimony from Burnett and his wife, arguing that the exposures were irrelevant to the government’s criminal case because “it relates entirely to indoor exposures.”

But Burnett countered the motion, saying, “I didn’t sit in the office and wait for (customers) if that’s what you mean. I spent time going all over (the property) all day.”

Jurors on Thursday also heard from Frank Kover, a former industrial hygienist for the EPA who researched emerging standards regulating asbestos exposures in the mid-1970s. Kover testified that Grace officials delayed research efforts and lied about the extent of their knowledge.

In a response to one request for information, Grace defendant Henry Eschenbach wrote that the company had “no reason to believe there is any risk associated with current uses of Libby vermiculite-containing products.”

But on cross-examination, lead Grace attorney David Bernick listed a half-dozen instances in which Grace disclosed volumes of internal data to the EPA and other regulatory agencies.

By the end of Bernick’s questioning, Kover acknowledged Libby vermiculite was more scrutinized by the government than any other material, and the government has “vast knowledge” about the asbestos hazards.

Kover also acknowledged he was not given the full picture of what Grace communicated to the government.