Who knew what, and when?

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

W.R. Grace maintains it has always been frank about the dangers of asbestos. Former workers and union leaders disagree. They say Grace didn't come clean with its workers until 1979, 16 years after it bought the mine.

Earl Lovick, who managed the Libby mine until 1983, testified in a Feb. 17, 1988, deposition that he told his men very little about the health dangers of asbestos. Lovick's career with Grace began in 1946. In 1969, he was diagnosed with asbestosis. He died in 1998.

"The workers were never notified of any medical problems of any employees of whatever kind," Lovick testified. "That's not something that is generally broadcast."

More damning are company memos on Richard Irons. Irons practiced medicine in Libby from 1977 to 1985, and served as public-health officer for Lincoln County from 1978 to 1984. During his tenure in Libby, Irons became curious as he ran into cases of mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer. His suspicions deepened when Grace refused to take more than one chest X-ray per worker to screen for abnormalities.

"We continued to ask (W.R. Grace's) Dr. Little as well as the company when they would do second films that would allow us to see better what these markings might represent," Irons said.

Eventually, Irons flew to Grace headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., to propose a mesothelioma study in Lincoln County. "I was critical of what was being done," he said, "because I was very aware that more could be done." Grace never approved the study. Mine manager Lovick testified he couldn't "ever recall discussing lung cancers in Libby with Dr. Irons."

Irons seemed to have made a stronger impression on Harry Eschenbach, Grace's director of Health, Safety and Toxicology at the time. "Irons is 'turning the screw,' " Eschenbach wrote in a 1979 letter. "We either play the game his way or he is going to blow the whistle."

A meeting with Irons in Libby seemed to ease Eschenbach's fears, as he wrote, "In summary, I think it best that we just let Irons sit and meditate for a while."

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews