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Asbestos Lawsuit

Jun 13, 2003 | AP Hundreds of mine workers in Helena, Mont., became ill or died while the state wrongly kept studies secret that documented the dangers of asbestos, former mine workers allege in a lawsuit about to be argued in the state's highest court.

Eight former mine workers and the wife of one miner are plaintiffs in the suit, which contends the state knew as early as 1956 of dangers posed by exposure to asbestos dust from a vermiculite mine in Libby.

The nine plaintiffs, all diagnosed with asbestos-related health problems, believe the state was negligent in failing to warn them and their families of the risks. They are seeking unspecified damages.

The case, to be argued June 26 before the Montana Supreme Court, appeals an August decision by District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock, who threw out the suit after concluding the state had no legal obligation to warn Libby residents of the danger.

In their appeal, the nine residents contend the state stood by while a "human disaster of epic proportions unfolded in Libby."

Libby was once home to a vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace & Co. from 1963 until it closed in 1990. The company is now in bankruptcy.

Asbestos in the vermiculite ore has been blamed for hundreds of illnesses and at least 200 deaths. The Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning up the mine site and other contaminated areas in the town since 1999, and Libby was declared a Superfund site last October.

A federal study in 2000 found the death rate in Libby from all asbestos-related illnesses had been 60 times the national average.

Twenty-three cases of mesothelioma, a rare type of asbestos-related cancer, apparently have their origins in Libby, said Paul Peronard, Libby's EPA coordinator. That is a rate of one case for every 1,000 residents, 100 times the national average, according to the EPA.

The state argues that state law and an attorney general's opinion demanded that the government keep secret the information it gathered in a series of seven studies from 1956 to 1974.

The state had no obligation to warn Libby residents, and no power to set standards to asbestos exposure or regulate mine safety, the government argues. Also, government was immune from suits for actions before the new Montana Constitution eliminated that protection in 1973, state lawyers said.

The state also contends the law requires employers not the state to ensure a safe workplace, even if the government conducted limited inspections of the site.

In his ruling last year throwing out the suit, Sherlock noted that the claims against the state did not come up until after Grace filed for bankruptcy, effectively halting scores of lawsuits filed against the company by current and former Libby residents.

"The state of Montana should not become the default defendant in every case where the true wrongdoer has no money or is otherwise unavailable to satisfy the damage that he has caused," Sherlock wrote.

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