W.R. Grace Trial: What Kind of Asbestos Was That Again?

Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew Schneider is following the W.R. Grace trial in his blog, Andrew Schneider Investigates.

Today he speculated that Judge Molloy’s initial prediction that the trial could take four to five months to complete might be accurate. 

W.R. Grace lawyer David Frongillo is on his third day of questioning Dr. Aubrey Miller, who is now medical adviser on bioterrorism to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and was the senior medical officer with the EPA’s Libby team.   Frongillo apparently again raised issues that had been debated long before this case began, in particular — what is asbestos?

Say what?

The government has said that the vermiculite mine Grace once owned outside Libby was contaminated with asbestos fibers, which miners brought home on their clothes and the mine processing plant spewed over the northwestern Montana town by the ton.

Frongillo took a unique approach to the asbestos question. He asked the judge to permit him to introduce five separate regulations or rules from EPA, OSHA, MSHA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and one federal law passed by Congress.

And then he read a section from each document that identified “the federal six” — the minerals that the government regulates as asbestos. He read off: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite.

He repeated the list four more times and asked Miller if he heard any mention at all of “winchite” or “richterite.” Grace’s lawyers say the U.S. Geological Survey has determined that those minerals compose 95 percent of the fibers in Libby.

“As far as I’m concerned it’s all asbestos,” Miller said, echoing the views of almost all of the public health experts who have observed the illnesses and death in Libby up close.

Um, yeah right?

But Miller was admonished by the judge and told to “listen to the questions and answer them directly.”

For years scientists and physicians have debated over which asbestos fibers were responsible for filling Libby’s graveyard.

What does it matter? It’s not complicated syllogistic reasoning — Asbestos is pervasive in Libby. Hundreds of people died in Libby of lung diseases. Therefore, asbestos killed them.

Frongillo and senior Grace lawyer David Bernick both questioned Miller about a meeting EPA held in conjunction with USGS and 150 of the nation’s leading authorities in 2001 on asbestos mineralogy and health to discuss the identity of Libby asbestos.

At the conference, geologists from different government agencies disagreed on what to call the asbestos contaminating Grace’s vermiculite.

One said there were minute amounts of sodium and manganese in the Libby fibers, making them technically richterite. Another said they had found a bit of iron in their sample, so the fiber had to be winchite. Neither of those fibers is regulated by the government.

So yeah, Judge Molloy’s time estimate and Andrew Schneider’s observations do seem to point to a long trial.

There’s more. Read Andrew Schneider’s blog entry.

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