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US seeks to delay W.R. Grace's asbestos case

WASHINGTON -- Federal prosecutors plan to appeal a series of rulings they say will undermine their upcoming conspiracy case against chemical maker W.R. Grace & Co, according to court papers.

William Mercer, the US attorney in Montana, is seeking a delay in the Sept. 11 trial, citing a government appeal of three rulings by US District Court Judge Donald Molloy that significantly hamper the prosecutors' criminal case.

Grace is accused of violating the Clean Air Act and knowingly poisoning former workers and other residents of a Montana mining town with deadly asbestos fibers.

Grace purchased the Libby, Mont., mine in the 1960s and closed it three decades later. Activists maintain that the asbestos fibers scattered across the town from the mine site to playgrounds and the high school running track. In recent years, hundreds of residents have complained of lung abnormalities and other health problems, including fast-growing cancers.

Last month, the judge dismissed part of the conspiracy count against Grace, ruling that the statute of limitations had expired on one of the key issues. He allowed other parts of the case to move ahead.

Two other rulings this month essentially barred the government from using what prosecutors called ``critical evidence," including asbestos samples and scientific analysis it had gathered.

The decisions have ``the practical effect" of excluding what prosecutors view as proof that Grace and seven former officials released asbestos, engaged in a conspiracy to defraud the government, and obstructed a probe by the Environmental Protection Agency, government lawyers wrote in a motion filed late Wednesday.

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