Grace trial barrier lifted

The Baltimore Sun

The U.S. Supreme Court refused yesterday an appeal to limit the asbestos-related criminal charges against Columbia's W.R. Grace & Co. and six former executives. It was the last obstacle preventing the three-year-old, oft-delayed case from going to trial.

"We are disappointed," Grace spokesman Greg Euston said. "We take this seriously. When [U.S. District Court] Judge [Donald] Malloy sets a trial date, we will be prepared to defend ourselves."

In February 2005, a federal grand jury indicted the chemical company and seven executives, one of whom has since died, on multiple charges alleging they knowingly endangered residents of Libby, Mont., by improperly disposing of asbestos-contaminated materials.

Grace operated a vermiculite mine in the area from the early 1960s through 1990. Roughly 1,200 people there have become sick or died from asbestos exposure, according to the indictment, though attorneys for the residents put the number of illnesses at about 2,000 and deaths at 225.

A trial was set for September 2006, according to court documents, but a series of appeals and postponements repeatedly delayed the case.

Yesterday's decision, which came without comment, thwarted an appeal that sought to limit the definition of asbestos under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

The Supreme Court also denied a separate appeal filed by the former Grace executives, who could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. Grace could be fined up to $280 million.

The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment yesterday on the high court's action.

In March, Grace agreed to pay $250 million to reimburse the federal government for asbestos cleanup in Libby.

And in April, the company said it reached a deal worth up to $3 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits by people who claimed they were sickened by the asbestos released in the vermiculite mining operation.

Grace, which employs 6,500 people in 40 countries, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001 after being confronted with thousands of such claims. The settlement could allow it to emerge from the complex reorganization by year's end.

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