The town of Libby, Montana is finally having its day in court.
Decades after the dangers of asbestos were known, federal prosecutors have begun a trial of the mining company W.R. Grace that produced vermiculite used in products from insulation to fertilizer. Vermiculite, which dusted the town for decades, is responsible for the deaths of more than 200 with more than 1,000 made ill.
Those who lost loved ones were among the first witnesses at trial in Missoula, Montana reports CNN.
Federal prosecutors charge that tremolite asbestos, linked to the lung disease mesothelioma, lined the lungs causing cancer. The toxic form of asbestos can also attack the lining of the heart.
Lung problems can show up years after exposure.
CNN visited in 2000 with Dan and Della Schnetter. Dan, who worked in the mine, became serious ill at the age of 38. His lungs filled with fluid and he was diagnosed with asbestosis caused by asbestos particles
"I wouldn't have raised my children here. I would not have. I wouldn't have took them up on the hill to breathe the same stuff I was breathing," he said to CNN had he known of the dangers.
The indictment says W. R. Grace knew of the dangers but conspired to hide that knowledge from employees of the mine and town residents leaving them “in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.”
The indictment also says that 63 percent of those who worked for a decade or more in Libby had lung abnormalities. The 10-count indictment also charges wire fraud and obstruction of justice. The company could be on the hook for up to $280 million, which represents twice the profits the mine generated.
The company says it knew asbestos came from its mine but denies any conspiracy, instead insisting it took steps to help those sickened obtain medical care. Five executives named are facing prison time.
The Environmental Protection Agency began its investigation a decade ago, and the statute of limitations now means prosecutors must prove that the company demonstrated criminal conduct after 1999. The trial is expected to take months.
The W.R. Grace mine operation was closed in 1990. It opened back in 1881 when gold miners discovered vermiculite in Libby. W.R. Grace bought the mining operations in 1963. #