A federal prosecutor told jurors Monday that a chemical company knew for years that its mining operation in a small Montana town exposed residents to asbestos, but it hid the risks from workers and government regulators.

W.R. Grace & Co. "and individual executives chose profits at the expense of people's health and chose avoiding liability over disclosing health hazards to the government," prosecutor Kris McLean told a U.S. District Court jury in Missoula in an opening statement.

Grace and five retired executives are charged with violating the federal Clean Air Act and obstructing an EPA investigation into the asbestos contamination. All face up to 15 years in prison and fines totaling millions of dollars.

The company mined vermiculite in the northwestern Montana town of Libby, but the mine was contaminated with naturally occurring asbestos mineral fibers, which can be inhaled and can cause mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.

Lawyers for area residents contend asbestos exposure killed more than 200 people and sickened some 2,000.

McLean said the company did its own research and learned that even low levels of asbestos in the vermiculite became dangerous when disturbed. Even so, Grace donated dangerous mine waste to Libby schools for use in building tracks for runners, he said.

"They endangered the health of hundreds, if not thousands," McLean told jurors. "This case is about holding this company and these executives accountable for very serious wrongs."

The legal issue is whether 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 contends the company and some of its managers conspired to hide health risks from its workers.

Lawyers for Grace, based in Columbia, Md., deny 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.

Grace lawyers were to give the jury opening statements later Monday.

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.

McLean said Libby suffers 40 to 80 times the national average in its rate of death from asbestosis, and lung-cancer mortality is 30 percent higher than health officials would expect the town to experience.

The trial is expected to last several months.

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On the Web:

University of Montana live trial blog: http://blog.umt.edu/gracecase