Battle for justice in Libby might collapse quietly


Environmental groups send me many press releases. And I read many news stories about environmental issues -- news framed by the groups.

The influential groups are busy designating more wilderness, and filing lawsuits to protect wolves, and pushing Congress to reform mining law, battling coal, battling oil and gas, battling off-road drivers etc. etc.

But I hear very little from the groups about the biggest environmental disaster directly affecting people. I'm talking about the poisoning of hundreds of working-class people in Libby, Montana, by asbestos fibers. Mining from 1924 to 1990 spread the deadly fibers throughout the small town. Hundreds of locals have died from terrible lung disease and more suffer every day.

Only a few environmental groups have tried to highlight the Libby disaster and help the people. I wrote about the movement's blind spot in a 2005 High Country News think piece headlined, "Where were environmentalists when Libby needed them the most?"

Lately, federal prosecutors have dragged former executives of one mining company, W.R. Grace, into a criminal trial in Missoula. The charge: While the men were W.R. Grace execs, they formed a conspiracy to expose the people of Libby to a toxic substance. It's probably the biggest environmental-crime trial ever. There's arguable evidence that the defendants knew their mining practices endangered people's health -- including testimony by a "corporate insider."

But in the way of courtrooms, prosecutors have a hard time connecting the dots and meeting the burden of proof for a conspiracy charge ...

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, running the trial, is one of the West's greenest judges. But Judge Molloy has shown skepticism about the prosecutors' case during weeks of pre-trial and trial arguments. Yesterday Judge Molloy erupted, blasting the prosecutors:

"Six weeks we've been at this and I don't know what the conspiracy is," said U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, who excused jurors during the scathing assessment of the government's case. "Where's the conspiracy? At some point you have to prove that there was a conspiracy to do something illegal. I have listened as carefully as I can. I have visited with my law clerk to test my memory. What is the agreement to do something illegal?"

There has been some national news coverage of the trial, but not a lot, and most of it in brief flare-ups.

Most environmental groups continue to look the other way. Why don't they play up this case -- and its apparent impending collapse? Why don't they demand environmental justice for workers and their kin?

It reminds me of the collapse of another federal case -- the prosecution that knocked Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens out of office last November; a week ago the prosecutors themselves were essentially charged with corruption. Could  this be a pattern of federal prosecutors overreaching or being incompetent? It seems to originate in the era of Republican President George W. Bush, whose Justice Department launched both cases.

A different tough and skeptical federal judge -- Emmet Sullivan in D.C. -- forced the collapse of the Stevens case.

More of the pattern: Both Judge Molloy and Judge Sullivan were appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

In recent years, Judge Molloy has clashed with the chief federal prosecutor for Montana, Bill Mercer (a Bush appointee). Mercer even worked in D.C. for Bush. In the Libby trial, other prosecutors are taking Molloy's heat.

Keep in mind, unless Judge Molloy tosses out the case, a jury of Montana citizens will ultimately decide the verdict.

The best coverage is local: The Missoulian has sustained coverage of the trial, with daily summations and a special website section devoted to the Libby disaster. And University of Montana journalism and law students have a blog and twittering about the trial (the journalism school helped break the story years ago).

Mostly the people of Libby themselves -- the victims -- have had to battle for small bits of justice, without much help from others. They've shown heroism and many have died during the battle -- like crusader Les Skramstad.

With blind spots like this, the environmental movement will continue to be less effective than it could if it really focused on helping people along with its other missions.

Some of the emotions in the trial were portrayed in a March 10 column by Andrea Peacock, published by Writers on the Range, a High Country News syndicate. Under a rallying headline -- "A poisoned Montana town gets its shot at justice"-- Andrea Peacock writes:

I got goose bumps ... when Judge Donald Molloy read the charges against W.R. Grace & Co. and five of its former executives ... relatives and other victims were finally given the chance to confront those executives face to face.

... There are now more than 274 names on the Libby "death list," and another 1,200 -- out of a community of about 12,000 -- who have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases through a federal screening program. More cases are discovered every month.

... The expectations placed on the government's attorneys are palpable in the courtroom, accentuated by the David v. Goliath atmosphere: There are 30 lawyers involved, but only three sit at the prosecution's table. As the testimony proceeds, I am struck anew by the contrast between the people I've met in Libby, and these corporate men. When Mel and Lerah Parker, owners of the Raintree Nursery, finally understood the extent to which their property was contaminated, they closed up shop and barred the public from their land. Grace executives, with the benefit of full knowledge, never warned a soul.

… As one defense attorney put in during opening statements, "What they are trying to say is that (W.R. Grace executive) Harry Eschenbach is a bad man. That he didn't care about the workers of Libby and was willing to let them suffer death and disease." A lot of residents of Libby would agree with that.

 What a mess.

Environmental organizations and the Libby disaster
Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Apr 11, 2009 01:25 PM
I think Ray Ring enjoys blasting environmental groups - a trait for which I sometimes take him to task. But in this case he is spot right on.

The mainstream environmental establishment and much of the environmental grassroots has allowed itself to be defined as a narrow special interest group, i.e. essentially equivalent to the asbestos industry or any other private interest. This is a colossal mistake which in my view will continue to prevents the "environmental movement" from affecting the fundamental changes which are needed if the Earth and its animals - including Homo Sapiens - are to escape either destruction or pauperization.

The Environmental Movement should be much broader. As environmental elder Gus Speth has written, environmentalists should see themselves as part of a Progressive Movement which includes those working for human and environmental rights and justice - including justice for the people of Libby Montana. But that would require vision and deep analysis - two traits sadly lacking among today's environmental leaders.

For more on this see
Why, I think
Apr 15, 2009 11:53 AM
The Seattle Post Intelligencer did a long detailed series on "Libby: a Town left to Die." This was several years (maybe five). The plight of Libby has received a lot of media in the past.

I'm shocked at what happened in Libby. You can see misery by walking through town and watching the people with oxygen assistance shuffle down the street.

However, the Intelligencer has largely gone under. The staff at other newspapers has been cut way back and Libby is a long way away for all but newspapers in Montana.

Finally, regarding green organizations, people Libby seem to hate them more than they hate W. R. Grace. At time these groups are cutting back themselves, why would they devote their resources to this?
What a Mess is Right
Apr 15, 2009 04:52 PM
I felt like this article was extremely inflammatory and it meandered quite a bit. Here are a few of the themes I saw (with my comments afterwards):
- Enviros are looking the other way.

Instead of spending your time blasting the greens for not having the same priorities as you, perhaps you could write an article on the lack of funding for EJ groups in Montana. I'd bet the very groups you blame in the article probably tried to stop the mining in Libby 30 or 50 years ago. Here's a polemic: everyone should re-prioritize. You, me, and everyone we know. We have to stop giving money to green groups to wring our hands and conscience of guilt, and actually get involved, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us and then blaming them when they can't do it all. We do the exact same thing with voting in this country. I voted for Obama, now I can just sit back and relax. Non-sense. Get up and do something.

-Molloy is green.

I didn't understand the reference to an old article claiming Judge Molloy is green? It seems like his track record in civil suits has little to do with a criminal trial. As a sidebar, I never thought Molloy was that green on the civil side of things. I know plenty of lefty lawyers who have gotten their asses handed to them by Molloy.

Prosecutors might be overreaching and that might be linked to Bush Sr.
- Now that is a conspiracy.
Not Bush Sr.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Apr 15, 2009 10:38 PM
George W. Bush's Justice Department launched the criminal cases against W.R. Grace and Sen. Ted Stevens; they didn't begin in the earlier era of George H.W. Bush (the Sr. you refer to, I guess).
Where were the environmental group on Libby
Feral Sage
Feral Sage
Apr 17, 2009 09:44 PM
I agree and disagree with you Ray in regards to your thoughts on the environmental groups. "Environment" is such a broad brush stroke. I perceive the "environmental groups" as being a generalized idea. Most groups that fall under the general catagory of environment have become specialized in certain areas of biodiversity, energy & climate, water, air, toxins, oceans and land conservancies. I don't believe there are any one group tht can address all the issues that fall under "environment." NRDC might come close, but even they have become more political.

All of these groups with specialized interests compete for funding. If the public doesn't fund their local "environmental" charities then they are left to compete for foundation grants. I see so many groups clammering for foundation grants for "climate" issues - it's the hottest issue.

I became a conservation activist and founder of a nonprofit, because the other conservtion groups were not ddressing the area of my concern. It would be great if there were "environmental" groups tht could come to the rescue or be helpful on such important issues as "Libby." Erin Browkavitch became an activist for her community. I would think that there are those in Libby now. Tragedies create activists and local "environmental" groups.
Ring Continues History of Blaming Enviros
May 12, 2009 12:34 PM
I have just made the following comment here ([…]/) for a new article at titled, "Who Failed Libby." Because my comments are also directly related to this, and other, Mr. Ring articles, I would like to paste the comments here:

Ray Ring has a long history of blaming environmentalists for failing to do this or that. I guess Mr. Ring has decided by taking such an approach in his writings it gives him an angle or a leg up on the competition. Or maybe he thinks it makes him look clever.

I'm not sure if most folks remember, but prior to Mr. Ring's latest article blaming enviros for not doing enough to help the people of Libby (which Joan links to and offers some quotes from) Mr. Ring had a similar article in 2005 that can be found here:

And last December, as the full scale of the economic crisis (caused by the same over-consumption and over-development that enviros warned about time and again) was becoming reality, Mr. Ring again took the opportunity to blame enviros. This time it was for supposedly "shunning" autoworkers at GM, Ford and Chrysler. You can read that article here:

I will paste below the comments to Mr. Ring that I submitted to the High Country News website at the bottom of his "Enviros Shun Autoworkers" piece. I never did hear any response from Mr. Ring, but I think for the most part the comments written last December still hold true, except, very unfortunately, for the part about the people of Libby getting the justice they deserve.

Of course, the big irony here is that ever since Mr. Ring called Judge Don Molloy "the greenest judge in the west" in his 2004 article (, Judge Molloy has consistently ruled against environmental groups/issues in a host of cases. Hmmm...taking a page out of Mr. Ring's book, perhaps an article titled "Mr. Ring, High Country News Fails Libby" is in order. After all, like I mention below, where were all those High Country News stories during the 80s or early 90s about the tredgedy occurring in Libby?


Ray, It seems to me that you are often quick to blame enviros for problems that don't seem to have anything to do with enviros.

For example, didn't a few years ago you basically blame enviros for not doing anything about the death and destruction caused up in Libby, MT at the hands of corporate-bad-guy WR Grace? This, despite the fact that MEIC and other enviros devoted significant time, energy and effort to help the folks up in Libby and generate interest from politicians and the media.

Isn't an enviro largely credited with alerting reporters at the Seattle PI about the tragedy happening to the people of Libby? And didn't the MEIC try to alert others for years?

Is it the enviros fault when politicians and the media ignore us? Where was High Country News' stories during the 80s or early 90s about the tragedy occurring in Libby? Should HCN share some blame? Where was Libby's native son Marc Racicot when he was Governor of Montana from 1993 until 2001?

So now you take on the environmental movement for failing to stand with the Big Three auto companies and their workers as they asked for $20 billion or so to basically just get them a few months further down the road...before they end up declaring bankruptcy anyway.

Ok, but I'm curious as to what, in your view, the Sierra Club or the environmental movement should have specifically done in this case? Seems like nobody wanted a bailout that included any talk of the Big Three doing things different to help put America on a clean, green and sustainable future. In fact, for a while when it seemed like Congress would pass the bailout for the Big 3, the loan money was going to come out of the funds set aside for more green cars, just further adding salt to the wound.

Don't get me wrong, I have serious concerns about the environmental movement and especially the way the Big Green Groups operate. However, it seems to me that you blaming enviros for Libby and now the situation facing the Big Three (which are getting their bailout anyway) is off the mark.

P.S. Ironically, the recent film by High Plains Films (which was a spin-off from enviro group The Ecology Center) titled "Libby, Montana" has done as much as anything to ensure that the people of Libby get justice and that the tragedy done to them at the hands of WR Grace is not repeated anywhere else.
It's about lost opportunities, not failed responsiblities
May 12, 2009 03:54 PM
Your argument is legit, Matt. However, by my reading, Ray is not maintaining that it is enviros’ RESPONSIBILITY to address these issues. Instead, he is contending that enviros are losing OPPORTUNITIES by not taking on these issues. You may be correct that they’re periphery to the issues most enviros care about, but what Ray is saying is that by reaching out to these affected communities, enviros have a real opportunity to widen support for conservation and environmentalism. We are squandering a chance to show we care both about the environment as well as the people that live in those environments.

I thank Ray for reminding us of this and continuing to challenge the environmental community to step up their game in ways that will lead to an improved environmental ethic in America.
Enviros and People
Dave Skinner
Dave Skinner
May 13, 2009 10:33 AM
Actually, Ray uncovers a basic reason why I personally dislike "environmentalism." There is, quite frankly, a genuine misanthropism to the movement. I mean, look at Ed Abbey and his hero status. Read Terry Tempest Williams and her hot dates with campfires and frogs, for crying out loud. Rick Bass's bent characters? All this stuff about "solitude" and no mark of mankind?
It is a hard fact of life that Greens freak out more about trees, rocks, and animals than they ever would for people. It seems to me that just about anything people would want to do to better themselves economically -- and therefore socially and culturally, there's yet another group that springs up to oppose same.
The only instances of anything different might be the token efforts made by Judi Bari et al to express IWW-style "solidarity" with Northern California woods workers. And that was accompanied by victimization as slaves of corporate America. It was never more than lip service.
Ray, I do understand the point you are trying to make. Yet I know for a fact that such a thing doesn't meld the mindset we're discussing.
the grace trial
May 31, 2009 09:19 PM
Are you saying the people lost the case against grace because of the judge,or that there was no criminal case in the first place,or?
link to ray's update
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
May 13, 2009 01:21 PM
My update on the trial's verdict --[…]/no-conspiracy-in-libby-despite-hundreds-of-deaths -- has more reader comments and links to some other scathing opinions.

About Ray

Ray has been a Western journalist since 1979. He's now High Country News senior editor, based in Bozeman, Montana. He's earned national recognition including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Sidney Hillman Foundation Journalism Award for investigating oil-field accidents, and an Investigative Reporters & Editors scroll for going undercover as a prison inmate. He's had three novels published.