Sunday, July 16, 2006
Bill Childs is on vacation this week. Filling in for him is author Andrea Peacock, telling the story of the W.R. Grace corporation’s tragic legacy in the small town of Libby, Montana. This is part one of seven.
Libby, Montana is a tiny community in the far northwestern corner of the state. You can’t go any farther north without hitting Canada, any farther west without ending up in Idaho. This small town straddles the Kootenai River, between mountain ranges sufficiently remote to support grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx and mountain lions. It’s Eden for people who like to live close to the land. And it’s the stage for one of the most tragic stories of the 20th century.
Since people first settled here in the late 1800s, Libby’s economy stood on two legs: logging and mining. The mine in question was the world’s largest body of vermiculite ore, operated first by the locally-owned Zonolite company, purchased in 1963 by the multi-national W.R. Grace & Co. Unfortunately, vermiculite is often (though not always) associated with asbestos. In Libby’s case, the mine was contaminated with several forms of asbestos which, for convenience sake, most people refer to collectively as tremolite asbestos.
Workers dug away at the mountain of vermiculite six miles northwest of town for nearly 70 years. During that time, the State of Montana, several branches of the federal government, and W.R. Grace, all were aware to some degree of the risks: but no one told the men.
Grace’s crimes went beyond those of omission. The corporation, with full knowledge of the nature of the hazardous material in its mine tailings, discharged its waste where kids could play in the fluffy piles next to the Little League baseball fields, donated it to pave the high school and middle school running tracks, and allowed townspeople to load up their pickups and haul it home as a soil conditioner for their yards and insulation for their homes. They sold an old loading facility to a family who intended to turn it into a plant nursery. And they told their workers it was nuisance dust, refusing showers and uniforms to the men, measures that might have saved their wives and children from the second-hand exposure that has since killed many of these family members.
As a result, more than 200 people from this community of 8,000 have died of asbestos-related diseases, and nearly 1,200—almost 18 percent of the more than 6,000 people screened—have been diagnosed with associated lung ailments. Furthermore, Grace exported its asbestos-contaminated vermiculite to the world, selling it under a variety of trade names (chiefly Zonolite and Monokote) to insulate an estimated 15 to 35 million buildings in the U.S. (more on this in a couple days).
Now, when one is diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease, one is most certainly going to die from it (unless, as one of Libby’s victims Gayla Benefield is fond of saying, “you get smacked by a truck first.”) And as these diseases can take decades to manifest, it is sadly clear that Libby’s tragedy may soon be America’s as well.
In September, seven current and former Grace executives will face criminal charges in federal court for their actions in Libby. What I’d like to do during this next week is put a human face on these events, providing links where appropriate to more technical and historical information about the case.
I thought I’d start by taking you on a tour today of Libby during the days when the mine was in operation. Our guide will be Les Skramstad. He and his wife Norita are immigrants to Libby, though they’ve lived there now for more than 50 years. Les stopped through in 1954 to visit friends, and ended up stranded when the temperature dropped to 14 below and his engine block cracked. He met Norita and they fell in love; stayed to raise their kids. They’re a family of musicians, and created a band out of their five children. They’re not wealthy, but are the kind of people who took whatever work they could find, always making room in their home for other people’s kids who had nowhere else to go. For a couple years, Les worked for Zonolite—the corporation that preceeded Grace on Vermiculite Mountain. Now, for the sake of those few paychecks early in his married life, Les is dying. Norita has been diagnosed, and so have two of his five children.
I’d like you to get to know the Skramstads, because each of those 1,200 diagnoses is a family like theirs, each of the 200 dead a grave marker with history and mourners.
This is Libby’s story: skramstad.doc