Libby's dark secret

For decades, mine dust has been killing people in Libby, Montana. Why didn't anyone do anything about it?

 

Note: three sidebar articles accompany this feature story: "Who know what, and when?", "'It's like sacking feather," and "'Grace is going to have to own up.'"

LIBBY, Mont. - For years, this mountain town in northwest Montana held a dark secret close to its breast. Tucked away near the Idaho border, 70 miles from the Canadian line, Libby is a utilitarian town. Four busy lanes of Highway 2, the main thoroughfare from Spokane to Glacier National Park and to the ski resort at Big Mountain, cut through its center. Libby was founded to accommodate the Great Northern Railroad, and its streets run perpendicular to the depot. Beyond the railroad tracks, the wild Kootenai River marks the town's northern border.

An occasional logging truck still rumbles down Main Street on its way to mills in Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

People here are hardworking, dedicated to their families and independent. Because logging is way down and local mines have closed, residents have scrambled to find new ways of making a living. But like people in many small Western towns, they keep to themselves.

So perhaps it's not surprising that, until recently, few people outside Libby knew that a startling number of the town's residents have died of lung diseases, or that today, many suffer from lung cancer. For at least two decades, it has been common knowledge among locals that their sickness is caused by asbestos-laced dust produced by a vermiculite mine just outside town.

If it were only the miners and truck drivers who contracted the diseases, the news would not be so shocking. But the men brought the fine particles of asbestos home in their work clothes. When their wives shook out their clothing, the particles filled their homes. Some men brought home truckloads of asbestos to mix with garden soil for better drainage. Others insulated their homes with it. Wives and grown children followed the journey to the graveyard, a half step behind the workers.

"This isn't just the working men and their wives who are dying," says Gayla Benefield, whose parents, Perley and Margaret Vatland, both died of asbestos-related diseases. "This could go on to the fourth generation within families. My grandchildren watched my mother die and they were terrified. They asked me if they would die of that, too."

The tragedy in Libby, like the diseases that follow asbestos poisoning, developed slowly - imperceptibly to most Montanans. Individuals doggedly fought their own private legal battles with the mine's owner, corporate giant W.R. Grace & Co. - a company at the center of the 1996 book, A Civil Action, and the movie based on it.

Then last November, just as Grace was about to quietly leave Libby in its dust, news of the asbestos poisoning hit the national press. Within weeks, federal hazardous-waste teams were sweeping the town, and the state's political leaders were scrambling to explain why they hadn't acted sooner. Two law firms were filing class-action lawsuits against W.R. Grace, and the company was backpedaling, promising to cover asbestos-related health costs.

In the shuffle that has ensued, it has become clear that, like the tobacco companies that have dominated recent headlines, W.R. Grace knew its people were dying, but kept the knowledge under wraps. Federal and state authorities also knew about the situation in Libby but did little to help. Now, communities around the West are watching the outcome.

"This was a company town for a lot of years. It was a very conservative, blue-collar town that was very loyal to Grace," says Aimee Boulanger with the Mineral Policy Center. "But the company clearly knew it was making its employees sick. It's another story of the mining industry not living up to its responsibility and accountability for cleaning up its mess when it leaves."

A quiet epidemic

It was in 1924 that miners for the Zonolite Co. began tearing apart a mountain seven miles from Libby. Their treasure was vermiculite, a mineral used in household insulation, potting soil and other products. At one point, as much as 85 percent of the nation's vermiculite originated in Libby.

As they dug, miners discovered that seams of tremolite asbestos paralleled the vermiculite. When the company built a mill to process the vermiculite, its ventilation stacks emitted tons of asbestos - up to 5,000 pounds a day by 1969. Asbestos dust blew from the tops of waste piles, flew off trucks and railroad cars and clung to workers' clothing.

The company shipped asbestos-laden vermiculite to more than 60 processing plants across the United States and Canada, where it made its way into homes, gardens, even animal feed.

Before 1979, the year in which the company officially told its workers that tremolite asbestos could be a health hazard, Libby doctors often blamed decreased lung capacity, coughing up blood, loss of appetite and other symptoms on emphysema, tuberculosis, bronchitis, asthma or the flu.

"Because many workers smoked in the '60s and '70s, few questioned the diagnosis," says Don Judge, executive director of the Montana AFL-CIO in Helena.

But the reality was more sinister. Once embedded in the lining of a lung, the sharp, barb-like fibers of tremolite asbestos do not let go, no matter how violently a person may cough. Over time, scar tissue forms on the lung wall, making the lungs less resilient and less able to transfer oxygen into the blood. Asbestos poisoning, known as asbestosis, may take 10 to 40 years to develop. It will not kill a person directly, but will cause other fatal diseases, such as lung cancer. Some longtime sufferers die when their lungs fill with liquid.

A doctor diagnosed the first case of asbestosis in a Libby worker in 1959. That same year, chest X-rays taken by Zonolite Co. showed that 48 out of 130 workers had abnormal lungs, but company officials never informed the workers, says Judge.

In 1963, W.R. Grace bought the mine and mill, assuming all liabilities. The Grace operation employed about 130 in the town of 2,600 residents. Although far behind logging as the main employer, the mine's jobs were unionized and paid well. The company frequently donated to local projects and charities, including the hospital fund and the town's Little League field.

Six years after Grace bought the company, in 1969, company officials received a warning from their insurance company stating that "When an X-ray picture shows a change for the worse, that person must be told and that person must be gotten out of the environment which is aggravating his condition. Failure to do so is not humane and is in direct violation of federal law."

Nonetheless, more than a decade later, in 1977, Grace officials were still debating whether to inform their workers of the dangers of working with tremolite asbestos.

"During the discussions, we considered two major options," one company memo read. "The first was to proceed as we have in the past without an employee education program ... while none of us believe that we should proceed as we have in the past ... we did discuss the ramification of that approach."

As the years went by, more Libby miners and their family members got sick. One Spokane-based doctor reported diagnosing more than 200 patients from the area with asbestosis. As public education on asbestosis increased, workers who were horrified to see their children contract the illness began fighting back by filing lawsuits against W.R. Grace. The Lincoln District Court quickly became swamped, and some former workers died before their cases could come before a jury.

Grace shut down its operation in 1990, and closed its Libby office two years later.

Where were the media?

The problem got little attention from the press or government officials. Every few years a small article about a lawsuit would surface in the back pages of the Missoulian, the state's largest daily, says Michael Jamison, who has covered the Flathead Valley for the paper since 1996. "But to get the thread of the story, you had to be able to look at all of them," he says. "I had wondered about them, but I didn't understand the scope. I assumed others before me had already written that story."

Roger Morris, editor of Libby's paper, The Western News, says he covered the first asbestos lawsuit filed by an employee against Grace, and another trial that involved a resident who didn't work for the company.

"But there's no way we could cover it all," he says. "We're an 8- to 12-page paper that comes out twice a week. People want us to cover the high schools, sports, churches and the bridge club. They don't want to read court reports."

For a brief moment during the 1998-99 Montana legislative session, the Libby tragedy stared journalists in the face. The Montana Chamber of Commerce was pushing a bill that would limit workers' compensation claims to one year after a worker discovered he had contracted a debilitating condition on the job. As things then stood, workers had three years after they had left the job to file.

Many Libby families drove to Helena to protest the bill. They claimed it was an attempt to help Grace avoid litigation by steering victims away from the courts and into a time-consuming and difficult administration process. Since many asbestosis sufferers don't develop symptoms for decades after exposure, they often find themselves locked out of workers' compensation, with lawsuits being the only avenue to reparation.

Later that day, a union representative recounted the Libby families' emotional testimony to journalists working in the state house Associated Press office. None of the reporters took the bait, but the bill did die in committee.

The event that finally shone a spotlight on Libby came last summer, when W.R. Grace representatives asked Montana officials to return money the company had put into a reclamation bond. Grace had spent about $433,000 of the nearly $500,000 bond cleaning up the mine and mill sites. The cleanup at Libby was finished, according to Grace, and the leftover money should be returned.

Libby residents who saw a notice for public hearings on the bond issue in small print in The Western News were outraged. They believed that asbestos could still be present in old company sheds and processing buildings, homes and even the topsoil of gardens and lawns - not to mention the Little League field that was built on an old Grace site near the train yard.

"Some of the people who had filed lawsuits were concerned that if the bond were released, Grace could says that the site didn't present a public health problem," says Bonnie Gestring with the Montana Environmental Information Center in Helena. Gestring knew about the asbestosis deaths because a Center board member was an attorney representing Libby residents in suits against Grace. So when Andrew Schneider, a correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, visited the Center on another assignment, she steered him toward the Libby story.

At the time that Schneider began his investigation, a trio of students at the University of Montana journalism school became interested in Libby. Professor Dennis Swibold directed his graduate students to Libby after being tipped off by a fellow University staffer.

"When I checked the archives for other coverage," he says, "I was shocked when we didn't find any clips at all."

Students Benjamin Shors, Shannon Dininny and Ericka Schenck Smith immediately recognized the importance of the story. "The first day, we knew it was something we should investigate," says Shors. By the time the students finished their preliminary research on asbestos and W.R. Grace, and visited Libby, they found they were "behind (Schneider) by three to four days everywhere we went," Shors says.

As it turned out, neither the Post-Intelligencer nor the journalism students broke the story. Late in the game, reporters at the Daily Interlake in Kalispell, a two-hour drive east of Libby, got wind of the situation. As they scrambled to piece together a story that had been sitting under their noses for years, they found that locals weren't very cooperative.

"I asked them where they had been," said Gayla Benefield. "I refused to interview with them. But I did send them down to the courthouse to look at the records."

The story breaks

The Interlake broke the story the second week in November, and the Post-Intelligencer followed with massive coverage by midweek. By the following weekend, the University of Montana students had convinced the Missoulian to feature their lengthy articles on three consecutive days.

According to the reporting, Libby residents had filed more than 140 lawsuits against W.R. Grace for asbestos poisoning and contamination. Only six cases have gone to trial. Juries found for those suing in three cases. Three others were settled during trial, with the largest award for $670,000.

In court, Grace denied knowing asbestos was dangerous and said it did everything it could to protect its workers when it spent $14 million on dust-control measures in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Grace attorneys argued that health problems were the fault of the workers, who misused or abused asbestos. They also said that people should be held accountable for their own actions, such as smoking, which will stimulate asbestosis, and trespassing on asbestos waste piles.

Combing through death certificates and documents at worker compensation offices, health departments and government archives, Post-Intelligencer investigators confirmed that at least 192 people in Libby and other places around the country had died from complications of asbestosis brought on by the material mined and milled in Libby. Since the first reports were printed, Post-Intelligencer reporter Schneider reports that a storm of telephone calls, e-mails and letters have led him to believe that the death figure may be much higher.

The repercussions of the Libby story were immediate and far-ranging.

The EPA launched a criminal investigation of Grace and sent a hazardous-waste team to Libby to comb the town for asbestos contamination. The federal agency set up an office on Mineral Ave., which serves as the nerve center for collecting health information and passing it on to the public.

"Typically, when we first visit a site, we usually don't have people who are already sick and dying there," says EPA staffer Wendy Thomi, underscoring the severity of the situation. She has no exact numbers of the ill, but will only say that Libby has a "high incidence of lung disease."

So far, says Thomi, teams have found asbestos in one of 12 samples taken from processing facilities, while one in 35 houses has turned up asbestos contamination. Next, the team plans to sample topsoil from yards and gardens, and to do extensive testing on the mine site as soon as the snow melts.

"Our prime goal is to figure out if people are still being exposed to asbestos," Thomi says.

Soon after the story broke, W.R. Grace came back to Libby, opening an office a couple of blocks from the Environmental Protection Agency. The company offered to fund an independent medical monitoring program to provide medical coverage to anyone in Libby diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease.

"W.R. Grace knew of the asbestos contamination shortly after buying the mine in 1963," says company spokesman Alan Stringer. "We immediately began administrative and engineering controls." He points to a wet mill, completed in 1974, designed to keep the dust down.

"There are those who say there is a risk living in this town, but I don't think that's the case. My belief is that there are no issues in town relative to past operation," he says. "We'll work with the EPA and let them determine that. Our intentions are to do what's necessary."

But by now, most of Libby's faith in W.R. Grace has blown away. Law firms based in San Francisco, Calif., and Spokane, Wash., have filed three class action suits against the company. One filed in state court in Helena asks for a medical diagnostic program and property remediation for the people of Lincoln County, according to Darrell Scott, a class counsel for the Spokane firm Lukins and Annis. Two other suits filed in federal court in Missoula seek the same, plus punitive damages to create a trust fund for community development.

Grace officials accuse the firms of trying to cash in on the human tragedy in Libby. They have publicly accused the firms of having no prior connection to the people of Libby. But that's not the case, according to Mischelle Fulgham, an associate with Lukins and Annis.

"I spent practically my entire life in Libby," she says. "All the members of my family were born and raised there." Fulgham, who now lives and works in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, frequently makes the two-hour drive east to Libby to visit her parents.

Over Thanksgiving, Fulgham listened in shock as her parents pointed out the fellow diners in a local restaurant who had been diagnosed with lung diseases. "Many of them were young people in their thirties," she says. "I went to school with some of them. When I returned at Christmas, there seemed to be even more people who were sick."

Fulgham recalls playing baseball on the Little League field that was constructed on Grace property. The area is now being tested for asbestos by the EPA. "Every kid from that town played on that field," she says. "There was no known asbestos problem as we were growing up. That's what makes it so shocking. I still get kind of scared that I may be sick, or get sick. It's emotionally upsetting."

Wary of the potential social consequences for her family if she got involved in the controversial issue, Fulgham hesitated before asking her firm to look into the matter. But in the end, she "realized it was important to offer (former neighbors and classmates) some help."

Political aftershocks

In Helena and Washington, D.C., the neglected asbestos story in Libby has become a political hot potato that will sway upcoming races for governor and the Senate.

Gov. Marc Racicot, who is serving his last term, grew up in Libby, yet he told the Post-Intelligencer he knew nothing about the situation.

"Not a single official in Libby, Lincoln County nor the state had told me anything whatsoever about the deaths, the amount of illness or even the lawsuits in that community," Racicot said.

Others say the governor and his staff had plenty of information on hand. State auditor Mark O'Keefe, one of three Democratic candidates for governor, calls the state's denial of knowledge "not an acceptable or honest answer."

Former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., says he doesn't buy the "I-didn't-know charade." He told the Missoulian, "The state of Montana has known for 44 years."

Probably the most damaging evidence against the state lies in its file cabinets. Documents obtained by the Montana Environmental Information Center show that state officials knew of the Libby contamination as early as 1956. That year, a report on an Industrial Hygiene Study of the Zonolite Company by the Montana State Board of Health stated that "the asbestos dust in the air is of considerable toxicity, and is a factor in the consideration of reducing dustiness in this plant."

In August 1992, the Montana Department of State Lands released a draft environmental assessment for reclaiming the mine site. It states that "former employees have contracted asbestos-related diseases through occupational exposure at the mine site ... Public exposure to airborne tremolite resulting from access-road dust has been identified as a public-health concern."

On the federal level, the EPA unearthed a startling report produced by its Washington, D.C., office in the 1980s. The report stated that asbestos-laced vermiculite was a safety concern not only for people who lived near the Libby mill, but for millions of others exposed during its production and sale. Until recently, however, the report didn't see the light of day.

"It didn't really get lost. We're still trying to figure out what happened, why it got dropped," says EPA's Wendy Thomi. "There's a lot of accusations flying about," she says. "Who knew what, when? I've heard the hearsay, but I don't have the documents in hand. The agency has found some documents showing that Grace wasn't as forthcoming as it should have been."

The EPA was not the only agency that knew of the Libby situation. In January 1991, the U.S. Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed vermiculite mine near Darby. The document refers to a 1986 study on Libby workers that found "excess mortality from respiratory cancer, nonmalignant respiratory disease, and accidents."

The EIS also refers to research conducted in 1987 that shows "mortality from nonmalignant respiratory disease and lung cancer was significantly increased compared to the U.S. white male population."

"The government at all levels knew of the situation, but took no action," says Gestring, with the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns has jumped into the fray on the side of W.R. Grace, co-sponsoring a bill called the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act of 1999. Burns says the bill is an attempt to weed out frivolous lawsuits, standardize settlement awards and reduce the number of asbestos cases. Other Montana Republicans, including Gov. Marc Racicot and Rep. Rick Hill, back the bill. Though Burns recently dropped his support for the Senate version of the bill, saying it has no chance of passing. He is working with House members on their bill.

But Democrats, like Burns' opponent in the coming election, farmer Brian Schweitzer, counter that Burns is kowtowing to the industry group, Coalition for Asbestos Resolution, which gave him $29,500 in campaign contributions. The bill would create a quasi-governmental agency to hear asbestos claims, says Schweitzer, and require people who want to sue a mining company to have their condition verified and to undergo mandatory mediation before actually filing the lawsuit. Mining companies would only have to cover medical bills, not pain and suffering or loss of life, and the bill doesn't cover sick family members who never worked at the mine.

"The bill is a skunk," Schweitzer says. "It raises the medical bar so high that 65 percent of the victims in Libby won't qualify."

Under the microscope

Back in Libby, all the attention has brought its own set of woes. "This is a tight-knit community full of helpful people," said Mayor Tony Berget. But Berget says that the media coverage has sparked heated debates in town bars and cafes.

"It's sad to see some animosity coming out in people towards one other. Some people feel that some folks are just out to get money off this."

Berget also worries that the attention will make it even harder for Libby to rebound from its recent economic setbacks.

"We've already lost some business and real estate deals because of the sensational coverage," he said. "I hate to see Libby get a tainted reputation."

Many residents complain that the coverage has been overblown. "Everybody's writing sensational crap," says Roger Morris, editor of The Western News. "I may be shooting myself in the foot professionally, but that's what I think."

"The reports from outside Montana have been less than balanced," echos State Rep. Scott Orr, R, who runs a recycling plant near town. "They've used an inflammatory style more suited for a novel than news reporting."

Still, those closest to the story, the dying and the surviving friends and family who have buried the dead, have no regrets that the secret is finally out.

"I assumed the regulatory agencies were watching this all along," said Gayla Benefield. "I was stunned to find out how little the EPA or Dept. of Environmental Quality knew. I thought they were keeping records.

"Now the spotlight is on Libby, and the experts have finally come to town."

Following a year's hiatus in Hot Springs, Mont., Mark Matthews once again writes from Missoula.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Wendy Thomi with the Environmental Protection Agency 406/293-6194;
  • Alan Stringer with W.R. Grace & Co., 406/293-3964;
  • Bonnie Gestring, with the Montana Environmental Information Center, 406/443-2520.
  • The text of the Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act of 1999, H.R. 1283 and S. 758, can be found at thomas.loc.gov.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews