LIBBY, Mont. -- The legacy of industrial poisoning in America is a grim one: There are the copper mines of Butte, Mont., that created a poisonous pit more than a mile wide and 1,800 feet deep. There is Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, once so polluted it caught fire. There is New York's Love Canal. But for sheer human misery, there rarely has been anything like Libby.
At least 200
people have died because they worked at the Zonolite Mountain vermiculite
mine, or had a husband who worked there, or jumped as children from ropes
into fluffy piles of vermiculite, or played on the high school running
track or the elementary school ice rink, both filled with mine
At the grocery store, you're likely to run into one or
two Libby residents with oxygen boosters slung over their shoulders,
connected to plastic tubes running into their nose. The ones who can't get
to the store sit home next to their oxygen tanks. They struggle to get a
breath of air in lungs that can't expand anymore, they cough until they
vomit, they peer from behind oxygen masks through eyes filled with fear.
They wait for their children to show signs of the disease. Many already
do. Asbestos--the invisible, deadly fiber that laces the vermiculite at
Libby--seems a problem from the past. Many people assume it has been
banned. Wrong on both counts. And the fact that asbestos lurks in the
lungs for up to 40 years before sickening and killing means that mortality
rates still are expanding, decades after the world first realized asbestos
Annual claims for work-related asbestos exposure hit
50,000 last year--more than double the rate of the mid-1990s--with medical
and environmental cleanup claims projected to reach $200 billion in the
U.S. by 2030.
Libby is the latest asbestos crisis to come to
light--exposed less than two years ago by a group of residents, their
lawyers and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It also--in the way asbestos
disease has afflicted much of an entire town--is one of the worst. The
small northwest Montana town's 2,700 residents have the distinction, said
Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist Chris Weis, of experiencing
"the most severe residential exposure to a hazardous material this country
has ever seen."
Death rates from asbestosis in Libby are 40 to 60
times the national average. And Libby has stunned toxicologists with
evidence for the first time that asbestos, long known as an occupational
hazard, has affected large numbers of people who never worked with
asbestos--or lived with anyone who did.
A wide-ranging health
survey released last month showed that at least 18%, and possibly as many
as 30%, of the 5,590 residents of Libby and surrounding rural communities
had lung abnormalities. Many had no exposure to asbestos other than
breathing Libby's air. A total of 48% of former mine workers had lung
With cleanup costs estimated at $50 million for the town
alone--not counting the massive contamination at the old mine itself--the
EPA will decide over the next few months whether to add Libby to the
federal Superfund program, which provides aid for the nation's most
polluted industrial sites. As an alternative, W.R. Grace & Co., which
operated the mine from 1963 until it closed in 1990, has offered to do the
Grace, a $1.6-billion chemical and building
materials company, has already paid $20 million in individual claims and
spent more than $2 million cleaning up its plants in Libby. The company
has pledged millions more to pay medical bills for anyone in Libby
diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness and $250,000 a year to the
local hospital for health screenings.
EPA administrator Christie
Whitman, scheduled to visit the town today, also will take on the
difficult question of whether Superfund cleanup money can be used in Libby
to remove Zonolite home insulation, which was installed in anywhere from
800,000 to 10 million attics across America. Libby attics are eligible for
Superfund money only if the EPA finds a public health emergency or if
someone not living in the home could be exposed to dangerous quantities of
The extent of asbestos contamination in this town is hard
to grasp. While it's perfectly safe to breathe Libby's mountain air--the
mine's processing plants no longer belch asbestos fibers into the
atmosphere--all you have to do is scratch in the dirt in some places to
Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that has been
used for decades in insulation, soil conditioning, fireproofing compounds
and fertilizers. While vermiculite itself is nonhazardous, its ore is
sometimes threaded with tremolite, a rare and extremely toxic form of
asbestos. Milling removed most, but not all, of the tremolite. And Libby's
ore had a higher-than-normal tremolite content.
vermiculite was free. Residents drove away with pickup loads to distribute
in their gardens as mulch and their attics and chicken coops as
Federal agencies for years documented--and largely
ignored--potential hazards to workers. It took a series of lawsuits to
begin tallying the deaths. When Paul Peronard was sent from the EPA's
Denver office in November 1999 to check out news reports that up to 200
people had died of asbestos exposure, he didn't see how it could be
"The reports didn't really reconcile with what I'd been
taught about asbestos-related disease and exposure," Peronard said. "My
understanding of asbestos was it's an occupational problem. You need
long-term exposure with fairly consistent doses, and you rarely if ever
saw it outside the workplace. And it's an old problem, one that's going
away," added Peronard, who now is the EPA's on-site
"What I saw was a pretty stark contrast to
The asbestos in Libby is more insidious than the more common
serpentine asbestos, such as chrysotile, found in old flooring, roofing
materials, brake linings and pipe insulation. Tremolite produces sharp,
thin fibers that lodge in the outer pleural membrane of the lungs in a way
beyond the body's ability to remove them.
Over a period of 15, 20,
even 40 years, scar tissue buildup decreases the lung's ability to expand,
leaving victims to suffocate, a tortuous process that can take years. The
clinic in Libby is now handling 680 active asbestos cases.
last five years, I have seen an alarming number of patients from Libby who
had no direct exposure to the mine or to the miners who had asbestosis,"
Spokane, Wash., physician Alan Whitehouse testified before Congress
earlier this summer.
Until now, asbestos mortality in America
generally has been tallied by occupation, with construction workers,
shipyard workers and manufacturers of asbestos products leading the
estimated 8 million people who have had significant asbestos exposure
since World War II.
Of the 24 patients of Whitehouse's who have
died in Libby over the last three years, only 18 were miners. It is
"easily conceivable," he added, that as many as 2,000 Libby residents
ultimately will show symptoms.
The EPA tried to ban asbestos in the
1980s. But an appeals court, in a suit brought by the industry, overturned
the ban in 1991. It remains a legal component in products such as brake
pads and roofing material, and is often present as an unintentional
contaminant in everything from potting soil to lawn care products--usually
in quantities so small it is considered safe for consumers, particularly
with modern manufacturing techniques.
In Libby, it is hard to find
a family that doesn't have a case of asbestos disease, or at least a close
friend with a bad chest X-ray.
Eva Thompson lost both her parents
to asbestosis, along with her husband. Eighteen other family members have
been diagnosed with lung problems. Helen Bundrock's husband died on the
front lawn two years ago when he left his oxygen bottle inside. Now she is
sick. So are all five of her children. Neil Bauer and his twin brother
have it. His father-in-law and his sister-in-law's father died "the most
horrible death that one wants to watch," he said. Alice Priest walks
around with an oxygen booster she calls "Grace." Her husband, a former
mine employee, died of lung cancer.
"Luckily, my husband died
before he realized what he was carrying home on his clothes would kill
me," she said.
World's Biggest Vermiculite Deposit
Mountain, six miles outside town, contained the world's largest deposit of
vermiculite when E.N. Alley found it near his farm in 1919 and noticed its
unique ballooning qualities when heated. In 1940, he began mining, milling
and marketing it as Zonolite insulation.
It was the best thing that
ever happened to Libby, or so it seemed. There was a silver mine up near
Troy, and the lumber mill employed a lot more people. But if you had a job
with W.R. Grace & Co. (which bought the Zonolite mine in 1963 and
closed it when asbestos injury claims began mounting in 1990), you had the
best job in town.
Grace milled the vermiculite to remove all but
"trace" amounts of asbestos. But the old dry-process mill blew
contaminated dust into the air that settled over the town, so thick kids
used to trace their names in it on parked cars. You could hardly see
through the dust inside the mill, and respirators the company gave out
clogged so quickly that most workers abandoned them.
remembers his first day as a sweeper at the plant.
probably anywhere from 6 to 10 inches of dust on the floor, and it hung
over everything. It was like walking on a mattress," Skramstad
"I thought, a guy can't live in this day after day after day.
But I had to have that job. So I started sweeping with all my
Workers say they were told it was "nuisance dust." When
fears about asbestos began to spread, the company conducted yearly X-rays
and sent problematic results to employees' doctors. Many workers say they
never saw those results.
Grace officials say they did what they
could to protect their workers.
"Today, we understand that asbestos
is a lot more dangerous than people realized in 1963," said Grace
spokesman Greg Houston.
When EPA inspectors came to the plant in
the 1970s, he said, "they walked away and they said: 'This isn't a big
deal.' That's because they didn't have the scientific knowledge, they
didn't have the technology, and they didn't have the understanding. And
neither did Grace."
Skramstad quit working at the plant before
Grace bought it but not before he got asbestos fibers in his lungs. In
1996, he was told he had five to 10 years to live. Now, at 64, his voice
is weak and trembly because he can't get a full breath.
Norita, has lung problems. So do three of his five children, including his
daughter Laurel, who has six children of her own. His son, Brent, has
full-blown asbestosis--a near-certain death sentence. So do his brother,
his two nieces and their two husbands.
Skramstad is one of only a
few victims to have had a case against the company go to trial in Libby.
Many others, including two major class actions on behalf of Libby
residents and homeowners across the country with Zonolite insulation, are
pending. (The insulation is considered relatively safe if left alone, but
it can put asbestos fibers into the air when disturbed.)
won a $600,000 judgment but took a smaller settlement to avoid waiting for
years on appeal. "The company has us . . . because we're talking time--and
time is on their side."
Don Kaeding, 79, spends most of his days in
his living room, hooked up to his oxygen booster. His problems, he
believes, date to the 30 months he worked at the mill and up at the mine,
mostly doing carpentry jobs.
"I really feel that W.R. Grace, some
of their CEOs, should be tried for murder, because murder is what they
committed in this town," Kaeding declared.
So far, he said, Grace
is paying $1,042 a month for his oxygen costs, along with all medical
bills stemming from Libby contamination. But what happens if the company,
which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection earlier this year, runs
out of money?
Gayla Benefield never worked at the mine, but her
father did. So did her husband. "He would come home covered with dust, and
you'd sort of beat the clothes off and put them in the washer. In the car,
you'd turn on the heater and the dust would just fly out."
father, after years of working at the plant, began to grow weak. He
thought he had a bad heart. A doctor told him "he had no lungs," Benefield
said. Her father began collecting $44 a week in workers' compensation and
died 18 months later, in 1974.
"He had a mask on his face, and all
you could see was the panic in his eyes, because he couldn't breathe,"
Her mother made a living selling Christmas trees,
fireworks and Avon products until she started coughing, four years after
her husband died.
She finally died in 1996, at the age of 79.
"Those [last] 17 months were horrendous. . . . It looked like she was
coughing up her lungs," Benefield said. "Everybody says she was old, she
died. Well, nobody deserves to die like this. At night she would curse the
company and she'd curse Dad for leaving her, for having let this
Now comes the next generation. Benefield is sick. And so
is Jan Meadows' 21-year-old son, recently diagnosed with breathing
abnormalities in one of his lungs.
"I wish it were me," she told
Gov. Judy Martz at a town meeting last month. "I wish it were my lungs.
But this is my boy."
Grace's Point Man in Libby
town like Libby, all wound up and nobody to be mad at except a company.
And then imagine Alan Stringer, W.R. Grace's representative here, in his
office on Mineral Avenue downtown.
Stringer was a plant manager
here for years. (His lungs are "fine," by the way.) Then he retired, moved
to San Juan Capistrano and envisioned a pleasant life with little to worry
about but his golf score. Until Grace brought him back as point man in
After the town meeting, Stringer sat in his office. "That
was 2 1/2 hours of Grace-bashing," he said. "Two-and-a-half hours of
complaining and criticism and retribution. I don't know. Maybe it's
Stringer was encouraged by the governor's attitude, he
said, her advice that the town forget about blaming the company, the EPA
and each other and start pulling together to get the place cleaned
"Her words were to the point: Let's fix it and get it done. And
that's the commitment we made when we met with her," Stringer said.
"People keep talking about the value of a human life. Well, no matter what
you say, I still need to know: What's it going to cost to clean it up? . .
. We're committed to doing what needs to be done--when the EPA defines
what needs to be done."
Many residents fear a Superfund cleanup
could drag on for years and discourage new businesses from coming to
Libby, which already has double-digit unemployment and a stone-cold real
estate market. But considering all they've been through, hardly anyone has
left town: Many know they couldn't sell their houses now for what they're
worth. Most realize that Libby, for all its past problems, is now a safe
place to live. And few, after living all their lives here, have anywhere
else to go.
The EPA tries to be reassuring. Peronard says nine of
the worst sites in town will be cleaned up by fall and vows he can get the
rest of the job done in three years--going from house to house, cleaning
up properties that need it. The mine itself is in another category, he
admitted--so contaminated it could take the rest of this century to
"Look," said Mayor Tony Berget. "There's contamination, and we
want it cleaned up. I have small children, and I want them to grow up in a
safe environment. But we're not America's Chernobyl.
"You can still
hike up to a mountain lake here, you can spend a whole week and never see
another person. And there's not a whole lot of places in the country that
can say that," Berget said.
Mike Powers wonders what he should say
about that to his kids, who won't bring his grandchildren to his house
because it's so contaminated with asbestos. They'd rather take them to the
in-laws', he said, where everybody smokes, but it won't kill you as fast.