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Charges Issued Over Asbestos at a Mine: 1200 people ill

By The Associated Press
Feb. 8, 2005
MISSOULA, Mont., Feb. 7 – W. R. Grace and seven senior employees were accused in a federal indictment on Monday of knowingly exposing miners and residents in a small town to asbestos.

More than 1,200 people became ill, and some of them died, prosecutors said.

The asbestos was naturally present in a vermiculite mine operated by Grace in Libby for nearly 30 years.

Prosecutors say asbestos fibers released by the mining sickened miners, as well as residents of the town.

The vermiculite was used in household products like insulation.

The grand jury said top executives and managers kept secret numerous studies that spelled out the risks that the carcinogenic asbestos posed to customers, employees and residents.

The indictment accused Grace and the mine manager, Alan Stringer, of trying to obstruct the Environmental Protection Agency in its investigation of the contamination, beginning in 1999, when news reports linked the mine, which has closed, to asbestos poisoning. The environmental agency has declared the mine a Superfund site and has spent more than $55 million to clean it up.

The company, based in Columbia, Md., did not comment on the charges. It said in October that it was under investigation.

The indictment also named Robert Bettacchi, a senior Grace vice president; Henry Eschenbach, a former health official for a Grace subsidiary; O. Mario Favorito, chief legal counsel for Grace; William McCaig, former general manager of the mine; Robert Walsh, a former Grace vice president; and Jack Wolter, a former executive in the Grace construction products division.

The Justice Department said the company could face a fine of $280 million, double the sum of after-tax profits that it made from the mine.

Mr. Stringer could be sentenced to 70 years in prison, and Mr. Wolter and Mr. Bettacchi face up to 55 years. The other defendants could be given five years in prison.

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 8, 2005, Section A, Page 16 of the National edition with the headline: Charges Issued Over Asbestos At a Mine. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe