updated 5/8/2009 4:12:01 PM ET 2009-05-08T20:12:01

W.R. Grace & Co. and three former executives were acquitted Friday of federal charges that they knowingly allowed residents of a northwestern Montana town to be exposed to asbestos from its vermiculite mine.

Jurors received the case Wednesday, nearly 11 weeks after hearing opening arguments.

An indictment unsealed four years ago charged that W.R. Grace and several of its one-time executives knowingly endangered the lives of mine workers and other residents of Libby and ignored warnings by state agencies to clean up the vermiculite mining operation.

Charges against two executives were dropped during the trial at the request of prosecutors. The jury acquitted Henry Eschenbach, Jack Wolter and Robert Bettacchi.

"I'm grateful and happy to go home," said Wolter, who is retired and lives in Palm Desert, Calif.

Resident: 'Gotten away with murder'
Attorneys for some Libby residents blame tremolite asbestos for about 2,000 cases of illness and about 225 deaths in and around the community.

Gayla Benefield of Libby, who suffers health effects from asbestos exposure and lost both parents to asbestos-related lung diseases, said she doesn't know what the next step will be.

"They have gotten away with murder. That's all I can say," she said.

Grace knew about the health hazards of asbestos, but covered it up "so they could continue making money as well as avoid liability," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kris McLean said during Wednesday's closing arguments.

Allegations of prosecutorial misconduct arose during the trial.

"I think that was simply another manifestation of the fact that the case was not a good case on its merits," said David Burnick, attorney for Grace.

Grace bought the mine in 1963 and closed it in 1990.

'Complex and creative' prosecution
The case stemmed from the mining for vermiculite from Zonolite Mountain near Libby, which began around 1920 and continued until 1990. The mineral could be processed into products used for plumbing insulation, fireproofing and gardening. Zonolite brand insulation is in some 35 million homes in the United States.

The problem is that the vermiculite from the Libby mine was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers, which can be inhaled and can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.

The legal issue was whether W.R. Grace, which bought the mine in 1963, and its co-defendants knew of the health risks associated with the mine for years before federal regulators arrived. The government contended the company and some of its managers conspired to hide health risks from its workers.

"This trial is one of the most complex and creative criminal prosecutions in the history of environmental regulation," said Andrew King-Ries, an assistant professor at the University of Montana School of Law.

Lawyers for W.R. Grace denied there was any conspiracy to knowingly release asbestos, and also contend that most of the releases occurred years before an applicable law was passed in 1990.

"The government has illogically charged that the defendants conspired in 1976 to violate a statute that would not exist for another 14 years," Grace said in its trial brief.

After news reports of health problems, the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999 sent an emergency team to Libby to collect information about asbestos contamination, and the town was declared a Superfund cleanup site in 2002

"There were visible flakes of vermiculite everywhere," said Dr. Charlie Weis, an EPA toxicologist, at a recent pretrial hearing.

The federal indictment unsealed in February 2005 charged Grace and its former executives with violating the federal Clean Air Act and obstructing an EPA investigation into the asbestos contamination.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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