Week 5: Four new faces to the stand
The week was filled with testimony from several witnesses and exhibits, with the government continuing to build its case against defendants W.R. Grace and former executives. The government entered into evidence several documents and memos, but did not always succeed in linking witness testimony to the exhibits.
The prosecution finished its re-direct examination of Dr. Aubrey Miller, a toxicologist with the federal government, followed by a limited cross-examination from the defense. The defense called Miller’s credibility into question several times. The prosecution presented several documents for Miller to read, including documents from experts advising of the health risks of asbestos, and indicating some Libby employees had health problems due to tremolite exposure.
Tremolite is one of six minerals classified as asbestos by the Environmental Protection Agency and is identified as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act. W.R. Grace attorney David M. Bernick and Thomas Frongillo, a defense attorney for Robert Bettacchi, attempted to demonstrate that Miller misled jurors and distorted evidence when he excluded certain information from asbestos-contaminations studies and documents.
Former financial analyst, James Richard Becker, Jr. was the next witness. Becker was a W.R. Grace employee from 1976 to 1980 and a member of the Zonolite Strategic Taskforce, a group that dealt with various company problems. Becker testified as a government witness and read several documents from company meetings, adding that, “Tremolite in vermiculite was an issue. If the regulations increased, (W.R. Grace) would have had to change the process of how vermiculite was processed, which would make the business unprofitable.”
According to Becker, one of the biggest problems facing the company was tighter asbestos regulations that would force the company to label their products as hazardous.
In the defense’s cross-examination defense attorneys Carolyn Kubota and David Krakoff fired questions rapidly at Becker, going through several documents and memos.
The government brought their next witness, former Grace research chemist Heyman Duecker to the stand. Hired in 1966, Duecker moved into the Construction Products Division in 1971, where he worked to develop vermiculite products until 1986. He remained with the company until his retirement in 1992. Prosecuting attorney Kevin Cassidy questioned Duecker about several company memos dating from May 1973 to November 1977. The memos documented the company’s animal testing. The testing was conducted because Grace wanted to know the health effects of the material they were processing.
Much of Duecker’s testimony focused on a study that involved injecting hamsters with tremolite. The company supplied two samples from Libby for the tests; one was 100 percent tremolite and the other was 50 percent tremolite, 50 percent vermiculite. Duecker said that according to standard procedure, the test results were controlled by the company that hired the scientists and the company that did the testing. The hamster study was done by injecting tremolite and water into the hamster’s pleural cavity surrounding the lungs. A letter sent to Duecker in 1977, stated that pleural injections cannot be “directly extrapolated” to be similar in humans, meaning different exposure methods could have different results.
In cross-examining Duecker, Krakoff attempted to show that Grace had tried to improve worker health in 1974 by using its newly-built wet mill. Duecker confirmed that switching from a dry mill to a wet mill was intended to “improve worker health.”
Dr. Daniel Teitelbaum and Julie Yang took the stand at the end of the week testifying about medical evidence. Teitelbaum was the founder of Poison Lab, a Denver-based company that did asbestos testing for W.R. Grace in the late 1970s. He was a former Grace researcher and creator of the “hamster study.”
Yang became involved in the testing when she was brought in for consultation because of her strong chemistry background.
Poison Lab examined x-rays and other data provided from W.R. Grace. Teitelbaum explained that two independent and respected radiologists in Denver were contracted to do the actual testing. The defense questioned Teitelbaum as to whether asbestos was the sole cause of disease among Libby miners.
Yang testified that she prepared the samples for injection into the animals and worked to replicate the same fiber composition found in the filters worn by Grace employees at the mine.
Government prosecutor Kris McLean and defense attorney Bernick wrangled over the relevance of evidence during Yang’s testimony. The evidence dealt with a memo involving a product called “Super Clean.” Yang wrote that even though the amount of asbestos in the product was relatively low, the airborne asbestos fibers were much higher when the product was handled.
-Elizabeth Diehl, Kalie Tenenbaum (posted 3:15p.m.)
Posted: March 20th, 2009 under News.