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News and activism, in Missoula, Washington and U.S. waters

The federal criminal trial of former W.R. Grace executives in Missoula, Montana, reached another stage this week with the prosecution calling their final witness. The lack of national attention to this noteworthy trial continues to surprise: The Justice Department going after corporate executives for allegedly covering up the health dangers of asbestos contamination from vermiculite mining in Libby. Doesn't that play into a classic storyline of business greed and oppression and why isn't there a big budget movie starring Julia Roberts?

One reason is dead and dying newspapers. The Libby contamination story was driven by the no-longer-printing but still a website Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a true newspaper campaign later turned into an anti-Grace book, "The Air That Kills." Making no pretense toward balance, lead reporter Andrew Schneider now publishes a website, AndrewSchneiderInvestigates popular with public health activists. The Missoulian is covering the story, but it tries to maintain a level of journalistic fairness, a balance that undermines efforts to turn the case into a cause celebre. A healthy, print PI would be flogging this case shamelessly.

There is some movement among the activists, though.

The paranoid left's flagship radio program "Democracy Now!" visited Missoula this week, and Amy Goodman interviewed the Missoulian's Tristan Scott and "independent journalist" Andrea Peacock. (Transcript of interview.) Peacock is sympatico to "Democracy Now!" and has a long piece in Counterpunch, an even more rabid web publication. The Missoulian, meanwhile, is one of the better but still painfully thin papers published by the near-collapse Lee Enterprises. (Trading at 39 cents a share; I worked for Lee in the late '80s.)

Scott reports that the trial "taken a left turn for the prosecution recently," i.e., not gone well. As noted earlier, the defense is claiming prosecutorial misconduct. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has scheduled a motions hearing for Monday, April 27. So the possibility of there actually being two, complicated sides to the case has probably kept trial-related news and activism subdued.

But there's a Washington legal angle now, which may spur interest. This week, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed suit in U.S. District Court, D.C. District, claiming the EPA is illegally withholding an Inspector General's report on the agency's clean-up of asbestos in Libby, "as well as the culpability of responsible EPA officials." From the news release, which emphasizes the Obama Administration's stated support for the Freedom of Information Act.

n 2007, EPA contended that the report could not be disclosed because it was part of an active law enforcement investigation. In 2008, the agency dropped that rationale but asserted that even the factual portions of the report, as opposed to Agent's Rumple's conclusions, were so sensitive that a redacted report could not be released. In a July 28, 2008 letter to PEER, Associate Deputy IG Mark Bialek wrote that releasing only the "summary of information and concerns of various EPA employees and private individuals on technical/scientific issues regarding EPA's residential cleanup program in Libby" reported by Rumple would still reveal the agency's "deliberative process".

PEER is a relatively low-profile environmental group, but its leadership and staff do know their way around the Washington bureaucracy.

In fact, one of their top people was a prominent figure in major article published this week by The Associated Press, "AP IMPACT: Tons of released drugs taint US water." To wit:

[Some] researchers say the lack of required testing amounts to a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy about whether drugmakers are contributing to water pollution.

"It doesn't pass the straight-face test to say pharmaceutical manufacturers are not emitting any of the compounds they're creating," said Kyla Bennett, who spent 10 years as an EPA enforcement officer before becoming an ecologist and environmental attorney.

Bennett, not a researcher, is PEER's New England director and her EPA experience was in wetlands permitting.

This is a very common technique in slanting news stories: incomplete identification of quoted sources to obscure their motivations and affiliations. Here's another one: Omit important information, like the levels of concentration of pharmaceuticals in water. Parts per million? Per billion? Trillion? We never find out.

The AP story reads like the opening PR salvo in a legislative and litigation campaign against the pharmaceutical companies. And, ah yes, here's commentary from The American Trial Lawyers (not AAJ).

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.