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Mining company charged with exposing US town to asbestos

A CAMPAIGN by residents of a tiny town in north-western Montana to strike back at an international mining conglomerate that allegedly exposed them to deadly asbestos contaminants finally brought hope this week. Federal officials have announced serial criminal charges against the firm and some of its executives.

The company, WR Grace and Co, is accused in a federal indictment of deliberately concealing from customers, employees and residents the health hazards posed by a vermiculite mine near the town of Libby, close to the Canadian border, which it operated from 1963 until 1990.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believe hundreds of miners and their family members, as well as other townspeople, died as a result of exposure to the vermiculate ore that was tainted with asbestos. Over the 30 years, another 1,200 people became ill with diseases including asbestosis and lung cancer.

"This is one of the most significant criminal indictments for environmental crime in our history," said Lori Hanson, in charge of the EPA's environmental crime section in Denver. The indictment says that Grace donated some of the asbestos-laced material to the town to build an athletic track and the base of a public ice rink.

The defendants at the expected trial will be the corporation of Grace and seven of its current and former senior executives. The company could face a fine of up to $280m (pounds 190m); some of the executives, if found guilty, could face prison terms of between 50 and 70 years.

"This wasn't something that happened to us. This was something that was done to us," said Les Skramstad, 68, a former miner who was diagnosed with the lung disease asbestosis nine years ago. "They should have to pay. They will never have to pay like we did, because it won't cost them their lives.'"

Grace, which makes building supplies and has operations in 40 countries around the world, issued a statement countering the allegations. "We are surprised by the government's methods and disappointed by its determination to bring these allegations," it said. "We look forward to setting the record straight in a court of law."

According to the indictment, officials at Grace were aware of the potential hazards of the materials being extracted from the mine as early as 1976 but deliberately worked to conceal the concerns. It was only after a west coast newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, published a series of investigative articles on Libby and its mine at the end of 1999 that the government began its own inquiry.

Mr Skramstad said he had worked in the mine for only two and a half years but had contracted asbestosis, as had his wife and two of their children. Battling for breath, he said: "I've waited a long time for this. "It's a great day to be alive."

Grace, based in Maryland, is no stranger to environmental litigation. In the late Eighties it paid $8m to families in Woburn, Massachusetts, to settle claims that pollutants from one of its plants caused the deaths of five local children from leukaemia. That case was dramatised in the Hollywood film, A Civil Action. In 2001, the firm sought bankruptcy protection because of the large number of asbestos-related lawsuits against it.