by Jane Fritz & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the last decade of his life, Les Skramstad of Libby, Mont., became an unexpected hero. As a leading activist against W.R. Grace, the company that had knowingly risked the lives of people in Libby and around the country with its asbestos-laced vermiculite mine and products, Skramstad was an outspoken advocate for Libby and its people. His straightforward testimonials about the impacts of asbestos exposure grew into a clarion call for people everywhere who care about justice.
In what was his last interview for The Missoulian, done just a few weeks before his death, Skramstad would remind us: "This didn't happen to us, this was done to us."
Skramstad recently died from an aggressive form of cancer linked to asbestos inhalation -- mesothelioma. The toxic white dust that Skramstad breathed daily for nearly two years while working at Libby's zonolite mine, which was later purchased by W.R. Grace, would decades later scar his lungs and strain his breathing. What angered Skramstad most was that he carried what the company called "nuisance dust" home on his clothing to unknowingly expose his family to microscopic tremolite asbestos fibers. It angered him deeply that his wife Norita, two of their five grown children, and hundreds of his friends and neighbors had breathed in the same toxin and would likely face a fate similar to his. More than 250 people from Libby have already died, many of them much younger than Skramstad's 70 years. Entire families have been diagnosed with lung problems; 20 percent of the local population is now afflicted.
When his good friend and fellow activist Gayla Benefield started to piece together the puzzle that was causing so many vermiculite miners and family members to die, Skramstad immediately got on board. The issue occupied the rest of his life. Even in poor health, he traveled to Helena and Washington, D.C. He never stopped speaking truth to power. Maybe it was his signature toothpick, typically clenched between his teeth, that kept him from ever losing his cool.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & met Skramstad at the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration office in Libby in late 2000. I had just spent a few hours talking to Paul Peronard, who told me that there were "more people sick around Libby than ever documented at Times Beach or Love Canal." I sat there numb when Skramstad walked in the door and sat down beside me. He was there to meet with Peronard to go over maps of the vermiculite expansion plant. I was in shock and I think Skramstad intuitively knew that. He invited me to stick around. "You might want to hear what I have to say for your story," he said with a caring smile. We became instant friends and stayed that way until his death.
Les Skramstad had his own heroes. One was Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Nation. A painting of the great Indian leader hung in his living room. Many of the Skramstad children and grandchildren now live in Havre, Mont., just down the highway from the Bear Paw Battlefield, the place where Chief Joseph surrendered to the U.S. Army in 1877. I don't know if Les ever made it to this sad place, but perhaps he learned this from Chief Joseph: Never give up the fight, even if it costs you your life.