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.
unprecedented tragedy was not simple, and Peacock makes sure that
we understand its subtleties — lest we be doomed to repeat
Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly
Silence of an American Corporation
244 pages, paperback $17.50.
Digging through the dust of Libby
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