EPA emergency on-site coordinator
By Laura Lundquist
Grace Case Project reporter
As he sat down in the witness chair at the beginning of his testimony on Feb. 24, 2009, Paul Peronard was prepared to speak about many details surrounding W.R. Grace’s operations in Libby, Mont. It would end up that he was allowed to attest to far less than he knew.
According to the Feb. 25 motion to exclude Peronard’s testimony filed by the Grace defense, the prosecution intended to use Peronard to explain asbestos sampling evidence to support the knowing endangerment accusation under the Clean Air Act. In a Jan. 13, 2006, disclosure, the government said that Peronard would offer his opinion based on his personal notes and reports that consider data from several laboratories and scientists.
But three years later, after a heated court session that excluded the jury, Judge Donald Molly determined that Peronard would not be allowed to give his opinion. Peronard could testify about how asbestos sampling was conducted in Libby but nothing else.
In the judge’s words, Peronard was not to be “a conduit of information” to allow the prosecution to streamline its case. The ruling was widely viewed as a significant victory for the defense, limiting one of the government’s most outspoken and experienced witnesses.
Working for the EPA, Peronard has become a key figure in the investigation of asbestos contamination in Libby, Mont. In 1999, he was sent to Libby as the emergency on-scene coordinator charged with investigating newspaper reports of people ill and dying because of asbestos contamination.
Peronard earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Georgia Tech in 1984. He followed that up with a master’s degree in management, also from Georgia Tech.
He began with the EPA in 1985, working as a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act enforcement officer out of Atlanta. He took specialized training and transferred to the EPA’s Denver office in 1990 in order to become an on-scene coordinator. He lives in Denver with his wife Tracy and two daughters.
As an on-scene coordinator, Peronard investigated contaminated sites across the nation, from an abandoned field of storage drums filled with toxic chemicals in Greer, S.C., to a chemical spill resulting from a derailed train in Sweetwater, Tenn., according to the account provided by Andrew Schneider in “An Air That Kills.” Prior to the Libby situation, his experience was mostly with chemical spills, not airborne releases.
As an emergency coordinator, Peronard earned a reputation as a strong witness in environmental lawsuits.
“I saw Paul Peronard testify in trial in Birmingham, Ala., in the ILCO Superfund Site cost recovery trial, and he was a very good witness for the government and the private party plaintiffs,” said Walter James III, an environmental lawyer from Texas who has represented corporations in Superfund cases.
But in the W.R. Grace trial, Peronard was muffled. Although his days in the witness box proved informative and, at times, combative, he was confined to discussing what he did to coordinate the sampling of Libby and the emergency response. Much of what he learned working in Libby from 1999 through 2004 and 2006 to 2008 was put out of bounds.