A federal judge has blocked prosecutors from trying to prove that Columbia-based W.R. Grace & Co. and seven top officials knowingly endangered residents of Libby, Mont., through the release of asbestos at its mining operations there.
Judge Donald Molloy of the U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., said prosecutors in the criminal case could not pursue the allegation as part of a conspiracy charge because the five-year statute of limitations has run out.
In his decision dated June 8, Molloy wrote that the government's allegation that Grace officials had failed to tell regulators about the extent of the contamination during the five-year period was not the same as an "overt act" to knowingly endanger people.
"The knowing endangerment allegation of the conspiracy count will be dismissed," Molloy wrote.
The decision was a partial victory for the defendants, who asked the judge to either dismiss or limit the conspiracy count, which carries penalties of five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release, as well as a $1 million fine per violation by the company.
Attorneys for Grace had argued that some of the officials named as defendants haven't worked for the company since before Nov. 3 1999, when the court determined the statute of limitations began.
The company and seven former and current executives were indicted in February last year on 10 counts of covering up health hazards related to a vermiculite mine that Grace operated in the town of 8,000. In the indictment, the government said 1,200 residents have developed asbestos-related disease and some have died, but those in Libby say there are many more victims.
The defendants still face charges that include violations of environmental law and obstruction of justice as well as the other allegations of the conspiracy count. Charges of wire fraud were dismissed in March at prosecutors' request. The trial is scheduled to start Sept. 11.
Greg Euston, a spokesman for Grace, said the company has been asked by the judge not to comment on decisions related to the case.
William Mercer, the U.S. attorney prosecuting the case on behalf of the government, also declined to comment.
At Justice Department headquarters in Washington, spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said, "We are considering our options at this point."
Yesterday, Gayla Benefield said the judge's decision was a blow to asbestos victims and their families. About 59 members of her extended family have died of the disease, are sick with it, or stand a significant chance of getting it, she says.
"For those people dying with the disease, facing Grace officials in court would have been the only consolation they would ever receive from those people," she said. "It is ironic and painful that Judge Molloy issued his order sparing Grace from accountability for some of the crime within days of the dedication of the new memorial park to the victims and the reading of the 256 names of the dead we know about."
The federal Environmental Protection Agency began investigating reports of health problems associated with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in Libby on Nov. 23, 1999. Grace operated the mine until 1992, the indictment said.
"I was amazed when they actually indicted all those Grace people in the first place," said Les Skramstad, who worked at the mine and has asbestos disease, as do his wife and two of his four children. "I'll worry about Grace weaseling out until I'm sitting in the courtroom, listening to the jury say 'guilty, guilty, guilty' for all seven of them and the company itself."
Skramstad added: "The judge is a pretty good man, and he's the only chance the people of Libby and all the others around the country poisoned by asbestos from the mine can get justice."
Sun reporter Andrew Schneider and the Associated Press contributed to this article.