Cross-examination of Miller heats up
Dr. Aubrey Miller, an expert witness for the government, bucked several questions from defense attorney Thomas Frongillo, and even posed a few of his own as the W.R. Grace trial continued late Thursday morning.
Frongillo’s line of questioning seemed to change as he arrived at a couple of dead ends. Right after the mid-morning break, he entered a flurry of e-mails that Miller had received from Environmental Protection Agency’s Libby team members, as well as a 1985 government report on the dangerous concentrations of tremolite at the Libby mine. Frongillo asked whether Miller remembered the e-mails and their contents, many of which he did not specifically recall. But he often answered questions of content by saying, “It says what it says.” In the flood of evidence, some jurors rocked in their chairs, while others held their pens above their notepads, seemingly unsure of what might be pertinent.
The e-mails called for meetings and conference calls to discuss attached documents, which mostly showed what different government agencies had concluded about safety at Libby mine since the 1970s. Frongillo asked repeatedly if Miller remembered the meetings and conference calls, and insinuated the government team was doing damage control, and trying to keep the public from learning what the government knew all along. Miller didn’t recall any one of them specifically, and said that he was more involved with the health of individuals in the community.
Frongillo asked if Miller was a member of the EPA team in Libby or not. When Miller said that he was, Frongillo entered a press release from EPA’s Libby team that said, in explaining why individuals like Mel and Lerah Parker had not been relocated, there was “no immediate health risk.”
Frongillo asked how Miller could make a statement like that to the public when in his testimony he said that low-dose asbestos exposure was extremely dangerous. Miller said that it was not his statement but that of the EPA team and informing the public was EPA on-site coordinator Paul Peronard’s responsibility.
“You had him (Peronard) on the stand,” Miller said. “You could have asked him these questions.”
But when Frongillo dug into the fact that Miller was a part of the team, Miller said that the nature of asbestos poisoning meant that a few more weeks would not make for a significant change in residents’ health, but that chronic low-dose exposure over many years was extremely dangerous.
This answer forced Frongillo into a different line of questioning. He entered a 1995 letter to Libby resident Mike Crill, who had written the EPA about his concern over the toxicity of the Libby mine. State officials had inspected the site and found no violations, which was reported to the EPA. In its reply, the EPA thanked Crill for his concern and explicitly stated that there were no violations of the Clean Air Act. At this point a number of jurors were jotting notes.
Frongillo finished off the morning with two extensive monologues in which he laid out the basics of a theory in which the government did nothing to regulate Grace, the people of Libby chose to violate EPA recommendations and expose themselves to contaminated vermiculite, and the EPA didn’t sufficiently inform the public about the hazards. After each monologue, he asked Miller to assume them as true, and to state his opinion on whether Grace or Robert Bettachi, Frongillo’s client, could be implicated in this case.
Both times, the government objected to this form of questioning, and both times, Molloy overruled the objections. Miller said he didn’t believe the statements were true and therefore couldn’t form an opinion.
Shortly after, Molloy called for a recess. As onlookers in the gallery began to stand, he looked at the jury and said that, on a closer examination of the circumstances, the government’s recent objections should have been sustained. He did not say whether he was actually sustaining the objections retroactively. With that, the courtroom emptied for lunch.
-Alex Tenenbaum (1:05 p.m.)
(edited March 13)
Posted: March 12th, 2009 under News.