A poisoned Montana town gets its shot at justice

 

I got goose bumps recently, when Judge Donald Molloy read the charges against W.R. Grace & Co. and five of its former executives in a Missoula courtroom. I'm sure I wasn't the only one. For the first time since 1999, when the news broke that hundreds of people had died from asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mined in Libby, Mont., relatives and other victims were finally given the chance to confront those executives face to face.

When I started covering this story, the idea of anyone doing jail time was unlikely. The state attorney general explained that making criminal charges stick would be next to impossible. Residents of Libby would just have to make their peace with what had been done to them.

Two questions vexed me over the years: How could Grace have treated the people in Libby so poorly? And how did the people who'd lost so much find the strength of character to move on with their lives?

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.

That these five men sitting in court have been called to account for their actions feels like a victory. All older gentlemen, their wives sitting in the audience, they look like the grandfathers they probably are. I believe they belong in jail, and I wonder if this trial, which may take five months, has made them feel any remorse.

A corporation has no conscience. So while the asbestos victims hungered for an apology from Grace, it's not surprising there never was one. But would these men be here now if they and the company had made amends? Contrition is powerful. When Gayla Benefield and Eva Thomson sued Grace over their mother's death -- Margaret Vatland spent more than a decade struggling to breathe before she finally passed away, killed by the asbestos fibers which came home from Grace's mine on her husband's work clothes -- Benefield says she would have settled the whole thing for an apology. The corporation agreed to one so long as she promised to keep it to herself -- not exactly an offering of true remorse, she says.

I've talked with Libby miners who say they might have been willing to forgive Grace for their own illnesses, but never for the lung ailments and other diseases suffered by their children.

The corporation can never claim ignorance. Grace kept meticulous records, documenting the extreme potency of its particular asbestos fibers, the ease with which they become airborne, and the decline of the miners' health. It did this for three decades. But because the Clean Air Act statute under which the defendants are charged did not exist until 1990, the year the mine closed, the evidence of Grace's actions before that date has to be carefully tailored to support the charges. The federal government charges that the company and its executives conspired to violate the Clean Air Act by knowingly releasing asbestos into the air, endangering anyone who came in contact with it.

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.

Les Skramstad, who helped bring Libby's tragedy to the public's attention, long grieved over his unwitting role in exposing Little League ballplayers to asbestos as they played next to the vermiculite export plant where he worked. What makes one man care, and another not? Les is gone now, a victim of mesthelioma, a rare, asbestos-related cancer, but he never had an answer for that one.

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.

Andrea Peacock is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is the author of Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation, and lives in Livingston, Montana.

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