by Pia K . Hansen
For more than two decades, local managers and corporate administrators kept a secret about W. R. Grace's vermiculite mine in Libby: the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos, its fibers so small and sharp that they nestled in the mining workers' lungs, causing asbestosis and ultimately death.
State and federal agencies knew about the asbestos contamination as well, yet did nothing to warn workers, many of whom died or are dying today.
Shortly after Thanksgiving in 1999, journalist Andrea Peacock got an assignment for Mother Jones magazine to go cover what was going on in Libby. At the time for her first Libby visit, the truth was just beginning to come out.
"It was an assignment on a very short notice, so I just went up there, and Gayla Benefield was the first person I called," says Peacock. "She came right over and gave me the names of all these people I should talk to. And I guess that's how it all began."
Benefield is one of the lead cleanup activists, and she helped Peacock hook up with the right people.
The Mother Jones assignment turned into a book titled simply: Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation (Johnson Books).
"I just couldn't figure out how human beings could do something like this to each other," Peacock says, hesitating a little. "But I haven't really reached any conclusions on that. I think the supervisors who lived and worked in Libby and continued to work at the mine like there was nothing wrong -- they had to be in denial, they had to think 'it can't be that bad.'"
With her journalistic background -- she has been the editor of the Missoula Independent -- Peacock applied all her research and interview skills full-force to the story about the people of Libby. She'll bring her story to a reading at Auntie's on Wednesday.
"I basically went up there and spent three to five days every month for the first year, and I just worked my way through the list of people I should talk to," says Peacock.
The community's case against Grace quickly evolved from being about individual damage settlements to seeking the designation of Libby as a Superfund site -- a designation that would ensure federal funding for cleanup, no matter what happened to Grace in the meantime. Benefield and her fellow activists took a lot of heat for pursuing that designation, especially from the town's business community, which was worried about image problems. How the activists ultimately won this battle is one of the high points in Peacock's book.
No matter how much attention the situation in Libby has gotten from local and national media, it's still a heartbreaking story. Of the approximately 12,000 people who live in Libby, at least 200 are dead because of asbestos exposure, and thousands more have been diagnosed with asbestosis.
Yet Peacock's book is not a sob story. Throughout her painstakingly documented writing, she weaves interviews with local residents, politicians and EPA administrators in a way that keeps the reader turning pages -- but there was one group of people she didn't get a comment from.
"I never heard a lot from Grace," says Peacock. "I talked to Alan Stringer, a spokesperson for Grace who had just started working up there when I began this project. The first time we talked, it worked fine. But when I tried talking to him again, he said no. I tried higher-ups in the company, and they finally said, 'We don't want to talk to you.' "
The book is so new that Peacock hasn't gotten a lot of feedback from the Libby residents depicted in the book.
"Those I've heard from really liked it and said I captured them, their family and their struggle in a good way," she says. "I'm going to read in Libby the Friday after I'm in Spokane. It will be interesting to hear from everyone."
Peacock is reading from her book at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main, on Wednesday, June 18, at 7:30 pm. Call: 838-0206.
Publication date: 06/12/03