Libby's Deadly Grace

W.R. Grace & Company knew all along that abestos from its Libby, Montana, mine was sickening workers and their families -- but said nothing. Only now, a decade after the mine closed, are the town's residents learning the painful truth.

The bottle-green Kootenai River rushes past the kitchen window of Gayla Benefield's log home on the outskirts of Libby, Montana. Wooded peaks rise up sharp from the river and curl around the narrow valley where Benefield has lived for most of her 56 years. When the clouds lift, you can see a patchwork of clearcuts and roads carved into the slopes. These mountains, like the people in them, have been used hard by the timber and mining industries that once ruled this region. Only a decade ago, before the bottom dropped out, most of the valley's 12,000 residents drew their livelihoods from the sawmill by the river, from W.R. Grace & Company's vermiculite mine outside of town, or from the businesses that served them.

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The Benefields were no different. Over the years, Gayla worked for the power company as a truck driver and a meter reader, while her husband, Dave, was a labor union representative. Together they reared five children -- who all, along with 11 grandchildren, still live within five minutes of the Benefield home.

Under ordinary circumstances, Gayla Benefield should be looking forward to a peaceful retirement among neighbors and family. But Libby is no ordinary town.

For the past 40 years, Benefield has watched an epidemic of lung disease spread quietly through the valley. It killed both of her parents: First her father, a former miner, then her mother died of asbestosis, a cruel thickening of the lungs caused by exposure to asbestos. "It took my mother 17 months to slowly suffocate," Benefield recalls. "The oxygen she was getting was the equivalent to what you would give a newborn, because that was the size of the lung capacity she had when she died."

Other miners and their families were getting asbestosis too, along with malignant lung tumors and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the pleural lining. They suspected a connection between their illnesses and the dust in the mine, but they could never be sure. Every day after work, the men would come home covered with a fine white powder. Their wives inhaled it as they scrubbed clothing and curtains and floors. Their children breathed it in as they played on the carpet. The miners were told it was just "nuisance dust," nothing to worry about -- even though W.R. Grace knew well that the dust they were breathing was loaded with microscopic asbestos fibers that could kill them and their families.

After their mother died in 1996, Benefield and her sister decided to sue W.R. Grace -- only the second such lawsuit to be decided by a jury in Libby. As many as 70 other claims, filed following a 1986 court ruling permitting miners to sue Grace for damages, had been silently settled, with a gag order attached to the cash amount in each case. But Benefield wasn't interested in money. "I just needed a jury to say they killed her," she says. "I felt that a guilty verdict would wake Grace up to help other people without forcing them to go to court. And that it might wake the town up."

Two years ago, a Libby jury -- after hearing a Grace executive testify that he knew there was asbestos up in the mine, and that it could kill the mine workers and their families -- awarded the sisters $250,000 in wrongful-death damages. But the verdict wasn't the wake-up call Benefield had hoped for. "It didn't even make the local newspaper," she says.

Years after the mine shut down, Libby is in many ways still a company town, with a company town mentality. People in this part of the country accept the notion that miners, loggers, and mill workers do dangerous work, and most are willing to swallow a dose of environmental degradation for the sake of their jobs. But once a Seattle newspaper got hold of the story last fall and put some numbers on the scale of the catastrophe, even the people of Libby were shocked.

Since the death in 1960 of Rudolf Engle, who had worked at the mine for 14 years, at least 88 Libby mine workers have died from asbestos-related illnesses; some sources estimate that the number may be significantly higher. Another 200 to 400 current and former area residents are now being treated. For a small town, the toll is staggering: At least 1 in every 40 residents of the valley has died from or suffers from illnesses related to asbestos. Because such diseases can lie dormant for 40 years before symptoms appear, many more cases are expected to surface.

After decades of neglect, the Environmental Protection Agency has finally started to investigate what is happening in Libby. Last December, an EPA emergency response team, spending Superfund dollars, rode into town to assess the damage. Although it has yet to complete its work, the team has already identified 33 asbestos deaths among Libby residents who had no occupational connection to the mine. "With this number of cases, there's no doubt that the link here is the Libby mine," says Paul Peronard, the EPA team leader. Asbestos in the mine led to asbestosis in the town -- and all the signs point to W.R. Grace.

Even before the Libby tragedy, Grace suffered from one of the worst corporate reputations in America, thanks in large part to the impact of the book and movie A Civil Action, which detailed the company's role in polluting the water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. The collapse of the asbestos market means that Grace isn't in that business any longer -- but its involvement in the industry will likely occupy the company's attention for years to come. And it has left a legacy of sorrow in Libby, Montana.

You can't see the old mine from downtown Libby, but you can somehow feel its presence. The site itself lies across the river and nine miles by winding road northeast of town, gouged into a stubby peak known as Zonolite Mountain. Since Grace closed the mine in 1990, most of the torn earth has been "reclaimed," covered over with grass and planted with trees. The company razed the buildings, including the mills where, during the life of the mine, millions of tons of ore were crushed and screened to separate out a valuable substance called vermiculite.

Vermiculite is a shiny mineral, similar to mica, that pops like corn when heated. The puffy product, as light as cork, was once a popular form of building insulation and is still an ingredient in potting soil. Vermiculite itself is harmless: The problem is that the layers of igneous rock where it is found almost always contain asbestos, exposure to which has been definitively linked to several fatal lung diseases for more than 70 years. The vermiculite deposit outside Libby is particularly dangerous because it is laced with tremolite, the most toxic form of asbestos. Tremolite's long fibers are barbed like fishhooks. They work their way into soft lung tissue, and they never come out.

Until the mid-1970s, the vermiculite mined in Libby was processed in the "dry mill," a place so dusty that workers often couldn't see their hands on their brooms. The mill workers suffered the worst exposure, but the rest of the miners and the townspeople got their share of dust as well. What wasn't swept out of the dry mill and dumped down the mountainside was spewed out a ventilation stack and into the air. By W.R. Grace's own estimates, some 5,000 pounds or more of asbestos was released each day. On still days, some of it settled back on the mine site. When the wind blew from the east, a film of white dust covered the town.

After passing through the mill, the vermiculite was trucked down the mountain, sorted by size, and sent by conveyor belt over the river to be loaded into open railcars. From there it was shipped out to "expansion plants" in other states, where it was heated and popped for commercial use under the brand name Zonolite. The EPA is now investigating 200 other sites across the country where ore from the Libby mine was shipped for processing -- ore that was packed with deadly concentrations of asbestos.

Not all the vermiculite left Libby. Grace had its own expansion plant and a bagging operation called an "export plant" in town, right next to the baseball diamonds. The area was ringed with spilled or discarded batches of Zonolite. Kids played in the piles, and people brought home bags of the stuff to pour into their attics or use in their gardens.

Now pink flags mark the sites where EPA team members have taken air or soil samples to test for asbestos contamination. They have flagged the ball fields and the abandoned export plant. Another set of flags marks the old riverside loading facility, now occupied by a family-owned nursery. More pink markers flutter every 1,000 feet or so along the twisting gravel road to the defunct mine.

The site is on private property and closed to the public, but the old tailings pile is easily visible from the road. Practically a mountain in itself, the terraced heap supports scraggly clumps of grass and not much else. The hill slopes down to Rainy Creek, where a half-dozen ducks float on one of two ponds created by a dam, a system that Grace engineered to keep mine waste out of the nearby Kootenai River. The lowland is lush with cattails and willows, and an osprey nest suggests the presence of trout.

But just below the surface of the abandoned tailings pile lies a toxic basin of tremolite "fines" -- asbestos particles so small they have to be buried or covered with water to keep them out of the atmosphere. By the EPA's calculations, the proportion of solid tremolite that remains in the pile runs as high as 40 percent. Early this year, the agency published preliminary results that show significant tremolite contamination in the air around the nursery, near the ball fields, and in one of the first 32 homes in town that have been tested.

The results from air samples from six local schools are due this spring, as are thousands of soil samples. "We've identified the specific fiber that's associated with W.R. Grace's mine," says Peronard, the EPA team leader. "Where we find it, we're going to try to compel them to pay for the cleanups."

Although the map of contamination in Libby is still being drawn, the paper trail of culpability is clearly marked. It has been pieced together by the lawyers and investigators who have used the courts to uncover volumes of internal memos, letters, and reports detailing W.R. Grace's well-established knowledge of the health hazards of asbestos -- and its failure to share that knowledge with miners in Libby.

The vermiculite mine at Zonolite Mountain was operated by a local company between its opening in the early 1920s and its acquisition by Grace in 1963. During that time, studies were published firmly linking exposure to asbestos with severe lung diseases. Zonolite executives knew of the threat, but did nothing to reduce the risk. In 1955, an internal company memo discussed "the dangers of exposing our employees to asbestos." Four years later, Zonolite ordered chest X-rays for 130 workers. More than a third of the films were judged "abnormal," with many showing early signs of asbestosis. The affected employees were never told the results.

The state also sounded an alarm. Benjamin Wake, the Montana board of health inspector, issued five reports on asbestos hazards at the Libby mine between 1956 and 1964. Although airborne dust in the dry mill contained 40 percent tremolite asbestos, Wake reported in 1962 that "no progress has been made in reducing dust concentrations in the dry mill to an acceptable level and that, indeed, the dust concentrations had increased substantially." A year later, Wake found asbestos concentrations six times the maximum level allowed at the time (five million particles of asbestos fibers per cubic foot of air).

The board of health had no authority to enforce its inspector's findings. Wake's reports were delivered to the mine's managers. Copies were marked confidential -- then buried in the state agency's files.

In January 1963, Zonolite sold out to W.R. Grace. Early the following month, Grace executive P.L. Veltman wrote a letter indicating not only that asbestos was present in the vermiculite compound mined at Libby, but that the company was already looking for ways to market the stuff.

Grace was less eager to find ways to safeguard miners and their families. It continued Zonolite's practice of offering workers respirators to protect them from asbestos-laden dust, even though the devices clogged up almost immediately and were almost entirely ineffective. Men judged to be ill were moved to less hazardous jobs -- not for their protection, but to keep them working. In 1968, the company's safety officer speculated that if Grace could keep sick workers from being exposed to more dust, "chances are that we may be able to keep them on the job until they retire, thus precluding the high cost of total disability."

All the while, Grace continued to monitor the health of its employees, initiating an annual X-ray program in 1964. By 1969 the company concluded that 65 percent of employees who had worked at the mine for 20 years or more had some form of lung disease. Once again, the workers weren't told the results.

Grace repeatedly ignored the warnings of local doctors that Libby miners were getting sick. What's more, the company covered up its own studies of asbestos toxicity, which showed that exposure to airborne tremolite not only produced asbestosis in laboratory animals, but led to mesothelioma and malignant lung tumors.

Eleven years after it bought the Libby mine, Grace replaced the notorious dry mill with a cleaner "wet mill," where water was used to separate the crushed vermiculite ore, cutting down on airborne dust. Other reforms were too little, too late. In 1983, the company decided not to spend $373,000 on showers, uniforms, and paid overtime -- the cost of giving miners the chance to clean the dust off their bodies before heading home to their families. The following year -- more than two decades after it bought the mine -- Grace finally issued coveralls to employees.

Helen Bundrock's life might have been different if Grace had decided to invest in safety. Her late husband, Arthur, worked in the mine for 19 years, until he got sick and went on disability in 1976. He suffered from asbestosis until he died in the summer of 1998. Now Helen has the disease too, as do four of their five children. "I think it would have helped prevent it if Art had been able to change his clothes at the mine," says Helen. "But he wasn't told the dust was dangerous. If he had known, he never would have worked there. Jobs were plentiful in those days."

At the federal level, the company plotted various strategies to circumvent stronger rules to protect workers and the environment. In 1980, for example, officials with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health announced they would conduct a study of disease in workers at the Libby vermiculite operation. In an internal memo, Grace officials considered their options, which included efforts to "obstruct and block" the study, "be slow, review things extensively and contribute to delay," and "attempt to apply influence." As it turned out, the study was delayed for years.

Whatever its influence, Grace was unable to stop the growing nationwide backlash against firms that mined and marketed asbestos. As the dangers of the substance became public, workers and consumers sued asbestos manufacturers and distributors; more than 150,000 cases are still outstanding. Demand for asbestos shrank to nothing, leading Grace to close the Libby mine in 1990, dismantle the buildings, and hire a contractor to clean up the tailings pile and holding ponds below the old mill.

Then last year, Gayla Benefield learned that the state planned to release Grace from a reclamation bond designed to fund cleanup of the mine if the company were to run off and leave a mess behind. Knowing that asbestos from the mine could still be a threat to the community, Benefield decided to file a complaint. "I felt that the site had not been reclaimed properly and possibly still posed a hazard," she says. Benefield was especially worried because laborers were blasting rocks up on Zonolite Mountain to use for flood control along the riverbanks. "When I found out that men were working up there again, and possibly bringing it home and contaminating their families, it alarmed me," she says. "The cycle was starting all over again."

Her complaint caught the attention of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which published a series of articles last November exposing the public health disaster. Grace officials insist that they were caught by surprise. "It was shocking to hear that there were people out there who were making accusations that there was a problem in Libby from our past operations," says Alan Stringer, a company spokesman who moved back to Libby last winter to work as Grace's point man on the situation. "Sure, I knew there were issues with past workers and workers' families, but I didn't believe that there was a problem to the town in general."

State and federal officials express similar surprise. On a cold night last December, Governor Marc Racicot stood in the Libby High School gym before a somber crowd of 200 people looking for answers about the sickness that had hit their town. Racicot, now 52, spent many noisy evenings in the gym as a teenager, when he was a star on the basketball team. On this evening, Racicot had no trouble warming up the hometown crowd. He was raised in Libby, he reminded them, playing at the town ball field right next to the asbestos bagging plant, swinging on a rope and dropping into piles of vermiculite just like all the other kids. The stuff was everywhere when Racicot was growing up. "I remember moving what appeared to be giant bags of Zonolite into our house," he said. "They were very light, so that a small person such as myself could move them. I remember putting them into the attic and walls of our home, and emptying them into the garden."

Racicot insists that he was unaware of any health problems in Libby until recently, and defends the state's record. "I'm not altogether certain one could conclude that a specific individual or institution broke down," says the governor, who was responsible for punishing polluters as state attorney general from 1988 to 1992. "It's important to place this in the appropriate context. For many years, there was no regulatory accountability."

Many of Racicot's constituents find such arguments unconvincing. Bonnie Gestring, director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a nonprofit organization based in Helena, the state capital, points out that Montana has released Grace from parts of its cleanup bond twice in the past seven years -- without any kind of air or soil monitoring. "Not only was it inappropriate," Gestring says, "it was counter to state law."

Asbestos manufacturers are also eager to exploit any elasticity in federal law, hoping to reduce the damages they face in court. Lawmakers from both parties have sponsored a bill called the "Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act," which, they claim, would help victims get justice more quickly by setting up a government agency to screen all asbestos claims. In fact, opponents say, the measure seeks to deprive most victims -- including three-quarters of those represented in the 125 cases pending in Libby -- of their day in court and to eliminate punitive jury awards against manufacturers.

In late February, Gayla Benefield traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress against the bill. She and some of her friends have also appeared in television ads designed to pressure Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican running for reelection this year, into withdrawing his support for the legislation. In one spot, an announcer intones: "For 30 years, W.R. Grace spread asbestos throughout Libby. Now Senator Conrad Burns is pushing legislation to let W.R. Grace off the hook."

The tactic seemed to work: In early March, after being hammered for two months by the barrage of ads, Burns withdrew his sponsorship of the bill (while pledging to help shape a substantially identical House version). Says Don Judge, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, which contributed to the grassroots campaign against the bill: "I think Senator Burns had enough pressure put on him by the citizens of the state to get him to back off the bill. This whole issue wouldn't be out there in front of Montanans and the whole of America if it wasn't for people like Gayla Benefield and the other victims of W.R. Grace."

Judge has felt the personal impact of the Libby tragedy: Two of the five most recent union presidents at the mine have died of asbestos-related illnesses, two more are dying, and the fifth is getting tested. He has taken to calling Libby "America's Chernobyl."

That kind of language infuriates Libby's business community. The valley's fragile economy, still struggling to survive declines in the timber and mining industries, has been starting to attract more tourists and retirees. In recent years, Libby has become a popular spot for fishing, rafting, hiking, and skiing; tourism has jumped an estimated 40 percent over the past three years. Now real estate prices have dropped off, and the community fears economic disaster.

"This issue has divided the town," says Mayor Tony Berget. "You have people arguing and fighting. Some are wrongfully mad at people who have asbestosis." Berget says he doesn't want to ignore or belittle the suffering of the asbestos victims, but he worries about the economic impact of newspaper headlines such as "A Town Left to Die."

Others are less circumspect. "We've been raped!" says Mike Cohan, a local businessman who sells geology books on the Internet. "Anyone from around the country who knows anything at all about Libby, Montana, knows that we're all dying from asbestos. And when this is all over, the article that says EPA finds Libby safe is gonna be stuck in with the classifieds." Cohan believes that low doses of asbestos are safe, and that the vermiculite around Libby isn't contaminated enough to harm anyone. As if to prove the point, he produces a baggie of shiny black chips and proceeds to eat one for a reporter.

But Cohan makes no excuses for the company that knowingly exposed its employees to high concentrations of tremolite dust. "Grace did a really dirty, bad thing to the miners," he says. "If the percentage of asbestos out there was so high, they should have closed the mine. Somebody ought to go to jail."

Whether anyone will is not certain. The state attorney general's office says only that it is keeping an eye on the situation. Special Agent Mark Measer of the EPA's Criminal Investigation Division would not comment on whether the agency is investigating Grace, saying his division is "reviewing" the Libby case.

Meanwhile, the EPA will continue to test for asbestos in and around Libby, particularly in the summer months when the air is much dustier. The agency also plans to spend $4 million on X-ray screening for more than 5,000 residents.

A decade after closing the mine, Grace is beginning to reach out to the community. The company has pledged to provide medical care for anyone in Libby who is diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease. In addition, Grace has promised to provide $250,000 per year to a local hospital for screenings.

Given the company's history, many residents remain suspicious of its belated gestures of support. "I always think there's going to be a catch here someplace," says Norita Skramstad. "We're leery, and this is a company that's really given us the right to be leery."

Both Norita and her husband, Les, have asbestosis, as do the two eldest of their three children. Les worked at the mine before it was acquired by Grace -- for all of two and a half years, between 1959 and 1961. It was long enough to make him sick. And since a company buys the liabilities as well as the assets of a business it purchases, a jury found Grace responsible for Skramstad's illness when he took his case against the company to trial -- the first person in Libby to do so.

The proceeding was held in 1997, before Skramstad learned that his family also had the disease. The jury awarded him $660,000 in damages, later reduced in a settlement to avoid a prolonged appeal by the company. "My life was bought pretty cheap," he says. "I didn't know then that Norita and two of my kids had it. Had I known, I would have been extremely hard to deal with. I still have trouble holding my temper, but there isn't too much it seems I can do about it except holler at anybody who will listen."

Skramstad has so little lung function left that some days he can't do simple chores, such as bringing in firewood. Sometimes on a weekend night he gets up the strength to play electric bass in a country band called the Sundowners. But at 63, he knows his time is limited. "My grandpa lived to be 88, my dad was 78, I might be looking at 68," he says. "And our son Brent's looking at 58."

Like Gayla Benefield and the other victims who have finally broken the long years of silence in Libby, the Skramstads mostly want to end the cycle of disease and death in their town.

"Our main goal is to stop it from going into the next generation," says Norita. "We have to see if it's still here. If it is, we've got to do something about it. All we can do is speak for those who have gone."