July 18, 2006
Guest Post: Mountain of Grace
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 three of seven.
When I started writing about Libby, I believed that if I could understand what happened in Libby, Montana, I’d have some insight into the dark side of human nature.
Because the W.R. Grace corporation bought that vermiculite mine in 1963 with full knowledge that it was contaminated with asbestos; they conducted annual x-ray and lung function tests, maintaining a database of the extent of disease in its workforce (declining, however, to share that information with the miners); they knew the damage that would be wrought by asbestos not just in their employees, but also in their employees’ families; and they shipped their product to more than 200 processing plants across the country with reckless disregard for the health of those workers and the people in those communities (not to mention the consumers who would for decades live in homes insulated with the deadly ore).
But Grace’s actions in Libby went beyond activities that made them money: one doesn’t have to look hard to find malice. Managers donated mine tailings to pave the local high school and middle school running tracks; they allowed vermiculite to be used on the grade school skating rink; they left huge piles of the stuff lying next to the Little League baseball fields where kids who were too young to play ball would swing on a rope and leap off into them. They turned a blind eye when locals filled up their pickups with vermiculite that wasn’t up to grade, and took it home to put between their walls for insulation, and in their yards as soil conditioner.
It was almost as though managers for the W.R. Grace corporation wanted to kill as many people as they could, condemning even the town’s children to a slow and painful death.
These are bold claims, and I invite you to examine them thoroughly. What follows is a report based on interviews, depositions and court documents all available to the public: grace.doc . For your convenience, I am also including my source notes: bibliography_blog.doc . It’s gets a little technical here and there, and for that I apologize. I am also sorry to say that in the end, I found no insight, no understanding, only this map to the darkness that lurks in the soul of humanity.
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When did the management team find out that family members of the workers could contract asbestos related diseases? I realize that they knew that over 90% of the workers that were employed by Grace for 20 years would die from their exposure, but I didn't think they knew about the exposure to family members until much later.
There was a study circulating among Grace management of the incidence of disease in a neighborhood surrounding an asbestos plant, and I want to say that my evidence of their awareness of this study dated back to the early 1960s, but I am having trouble laying my hands on it at this moment (it's buried in a box in my garage). However, I will point you to a 1965 memo where one Grace supervisor wrote: "Butch thinks you could get a 5 count in downtown Libby on many dry days." Former mine manager Earl Lovick interpreted this for attorneys during his 1997 deposition: Butch was Libby manager Raymond "Butch" Bleich, and a "5 count" translated to 5 million particles of dust per cubic foot. One of Grace's engineers estimated the asbestos content of the dry mill dust at 12 to 23 percent. This dust was exhaled outside the mill by huge fans and left to the whims of prevailing winds. Added up, this means Libby's citizens working or shopping downtown were breathing air that by Grace's calculations contained between 600,000 and more than one million particles of asbestos fibers per cubic foot of air.
If you'd like me to look up that other document, email me at email@example.com and I'll be happy to tackle the garage.
Posted by: Tom | Jul 19, 2006 3:53:06 PM
Your writings about Libby MT not only reveal the absolute criminality of W.R.Grace and the various agencies who were to protect workers and residents, but puts the human face on the story. Thank goodness there are people like Gayla and Les who would not remain silent.
I hope you will be blogging about the World Trade Center tie-in as we now see emergency workers starting to die of lung diseases. The actions of the Bush administration's EPA in declaring New York's air "safe" from asbestos is another part of the Libby tragedy as the chapter in your book so vividly describes. Again, the interests of corporate Amerika and Wall Street over-rode the science. My best friend in New York who lives across the street from ground zero had her loft cleaned five times and still finds white dust coming from nowhere. I worry about her health even when she tries to minimize the impacts of that day and the actions of our failed government agencies.
west yellowstone, MT
Posted by: barb abramo | Jul 19, 2006 7:46:55 PM