UM students from Libby split on reaction to verdict
By Carmen George
MISSOULA (May 18, 2009) – Not guilty.
To Danielle Bundrock, a University of Montana senior, the verdicts sounded a lot like, “No justice.”
The pain at the center of the W.R Grace trial is fresh for her. Her step-grandpa died on Easter in Libby from lung cancer due to asbestos exposure. Another 13 members of her family are diagnosed with asbestos-related disease. None of them worked at the vermiculite mine at the center of allegations of corporate wrongdoing.
“This is really disappointing,” said Bundrock when she heard that W.R Grace and three of its executives had been acquitted on May 9 of all eight criminal charges filed against them. The charges included conspiracy, Clean Air Act violations, and obstruction of justice. “It would have been a lot better if I had heard it went the other way. Someone has to be to blame for all the hurt that has happened to the people of Libby.”
Bundrock takes some sollace in the tears shed by some jurors as the verdict was read. They too, must have felt that Grace was accountable, she said, but must not have been shown the evidence they needed for a conviction.
About 120 students from Lincoln County attended the University of Montana during the three months W.R. Grace trial was underway a mile from campus. According to the registrar’s office, most come from Libby, Troy and Eureka. And while they traveled the same roads to reach Missoula, they are not of one mind about the the verdict in the Grace trial.
UM senior and Libby native Brittney Larson, whose father has asbestosis from playing on baseball fields contaminated with asbestos as a child, agreed with Bundrock that justice was not served.
“I think I knew from the very beginning by reading stories about Judge Molloy’ s reactions to a lot of things, and his restrictions to a lot of things that it wasn’t going to be a good trial,” Larson said.
The acquittal seemed to be the product of legal restrictions such as the statute of limitations, which only allowed evidence prior to 1999 for the conspiracy count. Grace’s corporate power, and a weak case presented by the prosecution, also seemed to work against a conviction, Larson said.
Laws and trial rules are what set America apart, said Vance Vincent.
“As far as justice goes I’m happy because (a guilty verdict) would have showed our system is screwed – that it’s guilty until proven innocent – and that’s not how it goes,” Vincent said.
Vincent, a Libby native and UM senior in environmental studies, said he felt the verdict was fair because the prosecution “could not prove without a shadow of a doubt” that Grace was conspiring to keep health concerns a secret. Although the asbestos-related deaths in Libby are awful, “emotions cannot drive guilty, not-guilty,” Vincent added.
Vincent said that his father Bruce Vincent, founder and owner of Environomics, an environmental consulting firm based in Libby, was friends with Alan Stringer, Libby’s deceased mine manager who also faced criminal charges, and felt that Stringer was discovering the health risks of Libby’s vermiculite at the same rate as the rest of Libby. Stringer wouldn’t have hid the health risks of asbestos, especially because his children’s school yards were filled with the contaminated vermiculite, Vincent said.
Kyle Nelson, a third year UM environmental law student and Libby native, also felt that the verdict was fair. Nelson is also a legal intern with the Missoula office of Browning, Kaleczyc Berry & Hoven, the firm that provided local counsel to defendant Robert Walsh, although Nelson was not involved in the case.
While some people have claimed that power and money influenced the verdict, Nelson thinks differently.
“This is a jury of Montanans who listened to all of the evidence,” Nelson said, adding that many people assume Grace should have been guilty based on an “incomplete story,” but that the jury got the “full story” and determined they weren’t guilty.
It’s also important to remember that this wasn’t a murder trial, he added.
The prosecution might have had more success in civil instead of criminal court because of the difficulty of this case, Nelson said. For example, it’s much easier to see that a robber is guilty because you can catch him in the house, but proving that a company knowingly released harmful chemicals into a community is less straight forward and much harder to prove, he said.
Lee Mickelson, a UM senior and Libby native, said he didn’t know if justice was served or not.
“I realize it is very difficult to prove conspiracy and frankly I’m not sure if they were really ‘knowingly’ harming the town,” Mickelson said. “But I think the reason so many of us react negatively to the verdict is it makes it seem like anyone can cause an environmental disaster, but with enough money can buy themselves out of responsibility.
“Did they commit a conspiracy to harm the town? Probably not, but they did make a lot of money making a big mess and putting a lot of people at risk. I think a lot of people were looking to the case as a way of saying ‘You can’t just go around sh—ing on people!’ and the acquittal obviously dashed that to the ground.”
Some worry that the not-guilty verdict will affect health care provided for those with asbestos-related disease.
“In the long term its going to slow down any recovery these people can get,” said Mike Shilling, a UM junior from Libby. “All they can give people (affected by asbestos) is an oxygen bottle, and that’s now.”
Shilling said that with the not-guilty verdict “it’s hard to imagine how it can get worse.”
“I guess there’s going to be no improvement, which is unfortunate,” he added.
Others are concerned that this verdict will negatively affect any future civil charges.
“This is going to affect any civil proceedings now because they will be able to reference that there was no criminal or malicious action committed,” said Necia Wayland-Smith, a UM senior from Libby. “It’s hard to swallow.”
Some are looking at the verdict in relation to their jobs in Libby.
Regardless of the verdict, Libby’s asbestos contamination will “continue to be dealt with for many years to come — it’s not just a problem for folks who were there back when the mine was up and running,” said Pete Mason, a UM graduate and Libby native who works as a wildland firefighter in Libby during the summer.
Mason said that an example of these long-term affects is a 33,000 acre plot of land in Libby that is off limits to fire crews if a fire is burning because it is a health hazard. Many of the trees around the mine are being tested because they have asbestos-laced dust lodged into their tree bark, he added.
Lauren Gautreaux, a UM graduate from Libby who also worked for the town’s Center for Asbestos Related Disease, said that whether Grace knowingly endangered people’s lives or not “they were still pretty responsible for what happened” and shouldn’t have “sidestepped” the issue like they did.
“The town as a whole feels kind of defeated,” Gautreaux said. “It was one thing the whole town sort of stood against.”
However, many still aren’t accepting the verdict as a defeat.
“I feel like we have a lot of support, especially from our senators and representatives,” Larson said. “Hopefully this trial will open more people’s eyes and more people will research it and learn about it and help us fight.”