Until today, I really thought that Judge Donald Molloy’s prediction that the W.R. Grace criminal trial would take four to five months to complete was a bit extreme. I based this on the fact that the testimony of two key government witnesses – On-site Coordinator Paul Peronard and Dr. Alan Whitehouse – came and went far more quickly than anyone anticipated.
Looking at a very tired Dr. Aubrey Miller, who completed his third day on the hot seat today and has been ordered back on Monday for another day in tag-team purgatory, I’m wondering whether five months is enough.
I wonder how Miller, who is now medical adviser on bioterrorism to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and was the senior medical officer with the EPA’s Libby team, compares his grueling 20-hour days as an intern and resident in med school to the day and night sessions he has endured this week on behalf of the government.
I’m heading back to Seattle now and there isn’t much room for my laptop in this snug Horizon Air prop plane, so this will be short.
Grace lawyer David Frongillo continued his questioning of Miller and raised issues that had been debated and fought over long before charges were even filed in this case and had even been the subject of contentious pre-trial rulings from the judge. Namely, what is asbestos?
The government has said that the vermiculite mine Grace once owned outside Libby was contaminated with asbestos fibers, which miners brought home on their clothes and the mine processing plant spewed over the northwestern Montana town by the ton.
Frongillo took a unique approach to the asbestos question. He asked the judge to permit him to introduce five separate regulations or rules from EPA, OSHA, MSHA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission and one federal law passed by Congress.
And then he read a section from each document that identified “the federal six” — the minerals that the government regulates as asbestos. He read off: tremolite, actinolite, anthophyllite, chrysotile, amosite, and crocidolite.
He repeated the list four more times and asked Miller if he heard any mention at all of “winchite” or “richterite.” Grace’s lawyers say the U.S. Geological Survey has determined that those minerals compose 95 percent of the fibers in Libby.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s all asbestos,” Miller said, echoing the views of almost all of the public health experts who have observed the illnesses and death in Libby up close.
Miller’s response was not appreciated by the judge, who warned him, and not for the last time, “listen to the questions and answer them directly.”
For almost 10 years scientists and physicians have fought over which asbestos fibers were responsible for filling Libby’s graveyard.
Frongillo and senior Grace lawyer David Bernick both questioned Miller about a meeting EPA held in conjunction with USGS and 150 of the nation’s leading authorities in 2001 on asbestos mineralogy and health to discuss the identity of Libby asbestos.
It was a contentious gathering – much like Thursday afternoon’s sparring match between Bernick and lead prosecutor Kris McLean. At the conference, geologists from different government agencies disagreed vehemently on what to call the asbestos contaminating Grace’s vermiculite.
One said there were minute amounts of sodium and manganese in the Libby fibers, making them technically richterite. Another said they had found a bit of iron in their sample, so the fiber had to be winchite. Neither of those fibers is regulated by the government.
I dug out a quote that I used in a story about the 2001 meeting that I think summed up what many working in Libby and with its people think about the naming controversy.
Michael Beard, a former senior chemist for EPA for 26 years told his colleagues, “Who cares? You’ve got at least 192 people who died and hundreds more made ill in Libby from what has been diagnosed as asbestos-related diseases. They don’t care whether it’s actinolite, tremolite or buffalo-girl-won’t-you-come-out-tonight.
“Whatever it is, it caused disease. If the fiber isn’t one of the six regulated types of asbestos, the folks in the government have got to realize it can’t just be ignored.”
I want to write more about today, I just need to get off this plane and try to get a transcript of the exact testimony.
So watch for the Twitter at asinvestigates.