W.R. Grace Acquitted In Asbestos Case

Company and three former executives were acquitted of federal charges they knowingly allowed residents in Montana to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine.

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted Friday of federal charges that they knowingly allowed residents of northwestern Montana town to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine.

Jurors received the case Wednesday, nearly 11 weeks after hearing opening arguments.

An indictment unsealed four years ago charged that W.R. Grace and several of its one-time executives knowingly endangered the lives of mine workers and other residents of Libby and ignored warnings by state agencies to clean up the vermiculite mining operation.

Charges against two executives were dropped during the trial at the request of prosecutors. The jury acquitted Henry Eschenbach, Jack Wolter and Robert Bettacchi.

"I'm grateful and happy to go home," said Wolter, who is retired and lives in Palm Desert, Calif.

Attorneys for some Libby residents blame tremolite asbestos for about 2,000 cases of illness and about 225 deaths in and around the community.

Gayla Benefield of Libby, who suffers health effects from asbestos exposure and lost both parents to asbestos-related lung diseases, said she doesn't know what the next step will be.

"They have gotten away with murder. That's all I can say," she said.

Grace knew about the health hazards of asbestos, but covered it up "so they could continue making money as well as avoid liability," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said during Wednesday's closing arguments.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct arose during the trial.

"I think that was simply another manifestation of the fact that the case was not a good case on its merits," said David Burnick, attorney for Grace.

Grace bought the mine in 1963 and closed it in 1990.

Libby is 128 miles northwest of Missoula.

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