For decades, the best jobs in Libby, Mont., were to be found at the local vermiculite mine. The work was tough and dusty, but it paid better than anything else in northern Montana. In the 1970s, however, mine workers, their families, and their neighbors started dying of respiratory diseases and rare, painful cancers.

Libbyites didn’t want to admit it, but their economic engine was killing them: The nearby vermiculite deposit was contaminated with asbestos, and the fibers had become lodged in local lungs. It wasn’t until 1999, after hundreds of deaths, that a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer broke the story — and exposed a decades-long cover-up by the mine’s owner, the multinational W.R. Grace Corp.

Journalist Andrea Peacock, who first covered the Libby disaster for Mother Jones magazine, digs deep into the dust in her well-researched book Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation. She uncovers the shady history of W.R. Grace, and chases Libby’s asbestos all the way to Lower Manhattan, where tainted vermiculite was used to fireproof the World Trade Center towers.

Peacock’s story is complex, but her strong characters hold it together. There’s the tough-as-nails Gayla Benefield, who lost her parents to asbestosis and avenged their deaths in court, and Les Skramstad, who only worked at the mine for about two years but now, four decades later, is dying. Those who had to remain quiet, or were slow to recognize the mine’s dangers, are also vivid — and even sympathetic — figures.

Libby’s unprecedented tragedy was not simple, and Peacock makes sure that we understand its subtleties — lest we be doomed to repeat it.

Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation
by Andrea Peacock
244 pages, paperback $17.50.
Johnson Books, 2003.