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.

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.