A reckoning in one of the worst U.S. industrial disasters, which unfolded in Montana over seven decades as an asbestos-tainted mineral was dug from the ground and processed, begins today when five former mine executives go to trial on federal criminal charges, reports the New York Times. The case is unusual in that prosecutors have avoided criminal charges in asbestos cases, leaving the issue to the civil courts.
The story of the now-closed mine and its adjacent mill is different, because it involves miners, their families, and neighbors who beame ill just living in the remote northwestern corner of Montana. At least 200 deaths and thousands of illnesses are related to the town's exposure to the mine's dust clouds of vermiculite, which by dint of geological bad luck was layered millions of years ago with naturally occurring asbestos. Prosecutors say the mine's owner, W. R. Grace & Company, a defendant, and its managers knew as far back as the 1970s that asbestos was mixed with the vermiculite and that this posed a risk to their workers, but that they conspired to continue releasing it into the air and to misrepresent the peril.