Choking on lies in Libby

& & by Jane Fritz & &

Gayla Benefield still remembers the nightmares she had of endless lines of lifeless, gray-faced men with fear in their eyes. It was 1982, and she was caring for her sick mother, Margaret, who for years had been in and out of the hospital with what doctors called pneumonia. The dreams eventually led Benefield to doubt their diagnoses and question them: "Is it the dust that killed Dad?"

In November, 1999, a Seattle newspaper alleged that nearly 200 people had died and several hundred more were afflicted with asbestos-related diseases in the small, mountain town of Libby, Montana (population 2,600, although the greater area holds around 13,000). The source of the problems is a defunct vermiculite mine owned by W. R. Grace & amp; Company. It is now known that millions of pounds of raw ore and expanded vermiculite that were shipped to hundreds of places across the country -- including Spokane, where a vermiculite insulation factory once operated -- are contaminated with toxic, tremolite asbestos.

While community groups and state and county governments work together to provide adequate health care for so many sick people, and the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) emergency response crews grapple with cleanup, Libby residents are looking for some hope in an otherwise tragic story. Lately, many sick Libby residents have come forth to tell their stories and share how the asbestos dust they didn't know was dangerous is slowly killing them and their families.

Benefield's father, Perley, had worked at the W. R. Grace & amp; Company vermiculite mine in Libby until he fell ill with asbestosis, a fatal lung disease resulting from asbestos exposure. His was the first case of the disease in Libby to be settled under Workman's Compensation. The company paid him $20,000. He died in 1974 at the age of 62, just five days shy of what would have been 20 years of employment at the strip mine on Zonolite Mountain.

In 1985, as her mother's health worsened, Benefield's persistent questioning finally got the answer she dreaded, but had suspected. Her mother was diagnosed with asbestosis, the first wife of a miner in Libby to get the disease, Benefield says, from dust brought home on her dad's clothing.

"Back then, we didn't know much about the disease or what was causing it," she says. "We still didn't know how many other people here had died or how many were sick."

But with both her parents falling victim to a disease caused by the same toxin, Benefield, the outspoken mother of five and a grandmother, worried about the health of the rest of her family and others in her community. (She still hasn't heard the outcome of her own test results or her husband's.)

Benefield then launched into an Erin Brockovich-like investigation of W. R. Grace and the company's Libby vermiculite operation. By the time her mother died in 1996, she had researched reams of company, agency and court documents.

She was shocked by what she found: W. R. Grace had consistently failed to disclose to workers the health risks associated with working at the Libby site, even as far back as 1969, when an internal memo showed 92 percent of its long-term workers had suffered respiratory illness.

A 1980 memo discussed company options on a proposal from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to study tremolite at the Libby operation. She says, the company favored a pre-emptive epidemiological study, delay tactics and political pressure to sidetrack the federal agency and suppress health data to protect economic interests.

Routine air quality inspections of the mine by the state of Montana were often done when it was either raining or the mill wasn't operating.

In 1982, the company had advised the Libby school district to encapsulate the high school track built from mine tailings, saying the material was contaminated with tremolite asbestos. (It was eventually paved over with asphalt.)

It was also in 1982 that President Ronald Reagan appointed J. Peter Grace, then CEO of W. R. Grace & amp; Company, to what became known as the Grace Commission, responsible for recommending to Congress deep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency's budget and curtailment of the agency's investigations. Benefield even found that the EPA came to Libby in 1980 to investigate asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, but the study was dropped two years later.

"I started to carry the message to our elected officials, right up to the governor's office," Benefield says. Libby is former Montana Governor Marc Racicot's hometown. So she figured somebody would do something about her findings and the overwhelming statistics, but she got no response. No one took action. While Racicot never visted his hometown to offer assistance and denied knowing anything about the problem, other evidence suggests the Montana State Board of Health was first warned about the possible health impacts in 1956.

So Benefield moved from political correctness to becoming a persistent thorn in the side of every elected official, both locally and in Helena. Most people thought she and the handful of others that got involved were crazy.

"But the biggest catalyst came when the first two [adult] children of a miner were diagnosed," Benefield says. "That was the real warning bell. Suddenly, if they could get sick, who else could?" But as more and more people in Libby got sick and died from diseases linked to asbestos, nobody but the victims and their loved ones seemed concerned enough to do anything about it. The medical community simply treated the diseases as they came up. Eventually, hundreds of lawsuits were filed against W. R. Grace, but the media missed the story as the townsfolk kept their deadly secret.

"I think the biggest reason for the denial is that this is a town that has always been supported by corporations and companies," says Benefield. "W. R. Grace was good to this town. Anything that this community wanted, that company provided. People don't understand that the mine only employed around 200 people. Our lumber industry employed at least 1,200 people. But if any community organization needed anything, W. R. Grace was always the one to jump to the forefront."

Then, in the fall of 1999, after more than 60 years of operation as a vermiculite mine (first owned by the Zonolite Company and then by W. R. Grace & amp; Company, which purchased it in 1963 and closed it in 1990) and hundreds of asbestos-related illnesses and deaths later, the tide of apathy finally turned.

"In August, 1999, I had the opportunity to go up Rainey Creek," says Benefield, "to the mine site. What I saw there just appalled me: waste piles left with nothing growing on them. I've never been an environmentalist, and I've probably shunned environmentalists because of the community I live in, but, suddenly I realized this should not be this way."

A month later, a legal notice in the local paper caught her eye. Montana was about to release the final reclamation bond -- $66,700 -- on the last 125 acres at the mine site. Benefield learned that five years earlier, a half of a million dollars had been returned to the company. She was livid.

"I spent a week calling every agency I knew," Benefield says, "asking them if they were aware that 300 people had been diagnosed at that time with asbestosis, including children of miners. Each agency denied any knowledge of any problems with the mine; each agency informed me that that property had been properly reclaimed by their standards. I started asking, 'Who's working for who?' "

Benefield next signed a formal complaint with the state Division of Environmental Quality. It got the ball rolling and caught the attention of a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who had been following W. R. Grace after Woburn, Massachusetts' residents had gone to court -- a battle that became the foundation for the book and movie A Civil Action.

Although Kalispell's Daily Interlake actually broke the story, the PI's piece brought nationwide news coverage, which soon brought the EPA back to town. But Benefield admits, within the community even at that point, it was a fight.

"There was complete denial on the part of the community that this had ever happened. We were simply destroying the tourism business," she says.

Now, after more than a year of what she calls an uphill battle for victims and their families to receive the health care they need, and with millions of Superfund dollars being spent on asbestos cleanup in Libby, Gayla Benefield has found her niche as a citizen activist.

She took W. R. Grace to court in 1998 in a wrongful death claim for her mother, and a jury awarded her $250,000. She adds that's what it would have cost Grace to put a change room in at the mine so the men wouldn't have tracked the asbestos dust home to their families. The company had offered her more than double that amount to settle out of court, but she would have had to sign a gag order and she wanted the guilty verdict.

She's spending some of that money on travel and phone expenses while voluntarily leading the tax-exempt, nonprofit Lincoln County Asbestos Victims Relief Organization. The group is both an informational resource and assists victims with funds for medication and transportation not covered by the health plan funded by W. R. Grace.

Her energy is seemingly boundless, as she also travels around the country and regularly to Helena and Washington, D.C., to speak to whomever she can about Libby's plight. She also attended a global asbestos conference in Brazil and helped citizens of Warwick, N.Y., defeat plans to reopen a tremolite quarry there. Their common bond, she says, is death and illness from asbestos dust.

"The common theme is the companies always knew and had no regard for the people," Benefield says. "I tell them, 'Don't feel sorry for us in Libby -- use it as a lesson and don't let it happen to you.' "

f anybody has a good, healthy pair of lungs, how much you want for 'em?" quips Les Skramstad of Libby. "I'll buy them."

Like other people with asbestosis, Skramstad has trouble breathing. Tall, thin and looking older than his 64 years, he was diagnosed with the disease in 1996. Skramstad began working for the Zonolite Company in 1959, prior to W. R. Grace & amp; Company's purchase of the company, and stayed nearly three years. His first job was as a sweeper in the dry mill.

"It was so unbelievable. The amount of dust... you can't even describe how much it was. When it'd get six, eight, 10 inches deep, then they'd send a sweeper in there to sweep it down. You'd put it in a wheelbarrow, then on the waste conveyor belt, and it took it out on the side of the mountain and dumped it. Incidentally, a lot of it is still there."

They called it "nuisance dust." But management never told Skramstad or the others that it was contaminated with deadly tremolite asbestos. Eventually, he was given a respirator to wear, but it would get clogged in less than a minute. So like the other men, he hung it on a nail on the wall.

"You just couldn't get enough air wearing it," he says.

Skramstad enjoyed working for the Zonolite Company. He was in his early-twenties, had a wife and family and as far as industrial jobs in Libby went, it was considered one of the best places in town to work. There was a strong camaraderie among the workers, too, he says, easily recalling the names of many of the other men. But as he tells his story, he adds that most of them have died. He's pretty sure that out of the 130 people that worked at the mine when he did, only he and four others are alive today.

Les Skramstad left the Zonolite Company a year before it was bought by W. R. Grace. He and his family moved to Kalispell to live, but eventually they returned to Libby. It was then that he and his wife Norita began to take notice of a pattern in the deaths of former workers in their community.

"We'd read in the paper that somebody had died, and in many cases I'd recognize the name right off as guys who worked for Zonolite or W. R. Grace," he says. "We'd just go to the funerals and haul them out to the cemetery and didn't know why. Most of the times, they weren't old enough to be dying."

In his last years at Zonolite, Skramstad was sent downtown to work at what was called the expansion plant at the end of Libby's main street. It was next to the export facility where the raw vermiculite ore was bagged and loaded into boxcars and shipped by rail to hundreds of places across the country, including a processing facility in Spokane, called Vermiculite Northwest, Inc., also owned by W. R. Grace & amp; Company. At the factory there, like the one in Libby where Skramstad worked, the vermiculite was heated to very high temperatures and popped like popcorn, expanding the golden, mica-like flakes into a puffy, lightweight substance that doesn't burn.

They named it Zonolite. Mining the material began in 1924, and 85 percent of the nation's vermiculite product originated from Zonolite Mountain, which overlooks Libby. Millions of pounds of the material were expanded and sold across the country as home insulation, potting soil, lawn fertilizer and many other consumer products. It was sold without warning labels even though it contained tremolite asbestos. The insulation alone is estimated to be in millions of homes across the country.

In Libby, the expanded vermiculite was stored in bins next to the expansion plant, which was also adjacent to athletic fields in town. Having kids playing on the ball fields -- where mine tailings were used as fill material -- next to the expansion plant was dangerous enough, Skramstad says, but leaping into the bins was also a popular pastime for Libby's youngsters.

His own kids played ball on those fields, and one of their playmates who lived nearby recently was diagnosed with asbestosis.

"He's only 34 years old," Skramstad adds. "Where's it going to stop?"

W. R. Grace closed the Spokane insulation plant in 1973 due to worker safety problems. In 1977, the company discussed whether to close the Libby mine, discontinue sales of Zonolite or to adhere warning labels to all products. But because the company feared any of these actions would seriously diminish profits, each idea was dumped, and the product stayed on the market until 1984, when legal problems with asbestos finally forced the company's hand. A bagging operation of finer grade ore continued at the former expansion plant in Libby until the mine closed in 1990. W. R. Grace to this day insists that its products are safe.

Skramstad claims that Zonolite Company workers or W. R. Grace employees, in Libby, Spokane or elsewhere weren't told of the "tramp material" clinging to the vermiculite ore, nor of the health hazards this tremolite asbestos posed. He even recalls one day being told to drive up to the mine site and shovel a pick-up load of what he was told was asbestos rock, bring it down to the expansion plant, dry it out with fans and bag it up. It amazes him still.

"We had no idea that it was lethal. We just cleaned it," he says. He didn't know what asbestos was back in 1960, but he now knows the industry did. The state saw worker safety problems back in the '50s.

The needle-like fibers of tremolite asbestos are hard to detect, and once airborne, they're easily inhaled and lodge in the lungs where they form scar tissue. It takes time for asbestosis to manifest -- 10 to 40 years. The scar tissue builds up enough to reduce the elasticity of the lungs and inhibit breathing. Eventually, the victim suffocates. Other tremolite asbestos-related diseases include lung cancer and a rare but deadly cancer of the lining of the chest cavity called mesothelioma. The rate of mesothelioma in Libby is 100 times that of the average national rate.

Gayla Benefield is a friend of Les Skramstad and his wife Norita. When he developed a persistent cough despite treatments for bronchitis, Benefield convinced him to go to Spokane and see Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonologist who has diagnosed and treated several hundred Libby residents for asbestos-related diseases. The doctor told him he had asbestosis.

"My wife and I drove home from Spokane and never said a word," Skramstad says. About halfway home, he pulled the car over and yelled: "By God, I've just been given a death sentence. That's a pretty stiff price to pay for two-and-a-half years of work." They never said another word to each other the rest of the way back to Libby.

With Benefield's encouragement, Skramstad filed a personal injury claim against W. R. Grace. His was the first case to go to jury, and he was awarded $600,000. He never saw that money, though. W. R. Grace lawyers appealed the decision, and figuring he would die before the matter was settled, Skramstad contacted the company and renegotiated a settlement to get what money he could. A gag order prevents him from disclosing the amount.

His days of dealing with W. R. Grace aren't over, though. Now his wife Norita has been diagnosed with asbestosis, and two of his five children, a son and a daughter in their early forties, have it, too. He unknowingly brought the deadly microscopic asbestos fibers home on his clothing.

"It's too big of a load to carry. We didn't have this coming," Skramstad says. "Just for me to have a job, they shouldn't have had to forfeit their lives. I shouldn't have either, but the fact that my family had no idea and I had no idea that I was dragging it home, taking it home to my wife and kids, that is unforgivable. And still that company don't seem to care. I don't know how I'm going to handle it if the rest of them come down with it... I guess the coward's way out of it -- I won't be around to witness it, but it will still be there."

The tragedy in his own family has empowered Skramstad to do more than just wait to die. He has helped Benefield to get the word out, traveling last year even to Washington, D.C., to fight a bill in Congress that was introduced by then-Senator and now-Attorney General John Ashcroft. It would have limited the industry's financial support to asbestos victims. The bill failed. But he just recently returned from Helena, where a bill in the Montana Legislature would limit asbestos worker claims to Workman's Compensation payments.

Besides fighting for fair health care compensation -- it can cost up to $500,000 for each asbestosis victim -- Skramstad is also keeping an eye on the EPA's cleanup of the expansion plant. The agency has spent millions of Superfund dollars on soil removal and structure remediation. Skramstad has helped them pinpoint problem areas. He feels a sense of personal responsibility to his community to do what he can, despite failing health.

"People are still being exposed," he says. "I cannot stand by and watch it take innocent people, be they wives, kids, grandmas or grandpas or what. As long as I've got the strength and air to do it, I'm going to keep on trying to get this taken care of."

And Les Skramstad is angry that W. R. Grace & amp; Company continues to block the EPA from doing cleanup at the mine and screening plant despite mediation attempts.

"They [W. R. Grace] keep dragging their feet on these cleanup deals, and never have they said that they were wrong. They have never once said six words: 'We were wrong, we are sorry.' "

d Feak speculated that Libby's economy would boom again, with talk of two new mines, Montanore and Rock Creek, and a ski resort being built in the region. So two years ago, he and his partner purchased the 75-year-old warehouse that used to be the town's grainery and the surrounding lots. Located just across the street from the Amtrak station, they figured it would be prime real estate, maybe entice some entrepreneur to start a ski shop. In the meantime, Feak could start a second-hand store, something in line with Libby's current depressed economy.

The idea was feasible, but there was one thing the businessman didn't count on: a town with an asbestos problem. His new business is a stone's throw from the W. R. Grace & amp; Company vermiculite expansion plant, and the ceilings and walls of the old building are packed full of Zonolite insulation, which regularly seeps through between the boards. It took Feak six months to sweep and vacuum it all up so he could open the second-hand store, but it still settles at the floor line. He never knew that the stuff was harmful until recently.

"And I was worried about hantavirus," Feak says. "And here's this other thing that I didn't even have a clue about. If I see mouse droppings, I'm kinda leery, thinking, 'Oh my God, I'm going to kill myself cleaning this place up.' I didn't even suspect something that was as bad or worse."

He reaches behind a used washing machine and brings up a handful of loose Zonolite. It glitters gold. He says 20 times a day or more, trains roar past and rattle the building so badly that more of the insulation seeps through, or it raises dust from the rafters that he fears may contain tremolite asbestos.

Feak has concerns both for his life and his livelihood. Back in 1976, when he was 27, he worked at a uranium mine in Wyoming in the crushing plant. Like mining vermiculite, it was a high-dust situation. One of his lungs collapsed, a rare occurrence for a man his age. The doctor surmised it was caused by uranium dust. The company picked up the tab for his medical bills -- more than $76,000. Feak wonders what it will all mean for his future health, now with the asbestos added in. Like many people in Libby, he also has the Zonolite in his garden and houseplants. He remembers scooping up bags of the loose material when he'd go fishing up Rainey Creek. Now he can only shake his head.

The EPA has tested his building once, finding no sign of tremolite. But Feak has real trouble trusting its analysis. The agency is now developing better methods than the usual light microscopy to detect the toxic, threadlike fibers. Paul Peronard, the on-site EPA coordinator, promised Feak to check it again soon.

He sees the situation as a black eye on the town economically. It's like Love Canal, he says, a toxic waste dump.

"Who wants to go in and buy anything at Love Canal and build a condo or something?" he asks. "Nobody. They don't care if it's been sanctioned by the government. If they can't get a clean bill of health on this community, it's wasted all my savings, and my partner's savings; nobody is going to buy it if there's an EPA issue going on. It's totally wasted, useless ground."

It's not that Feak and his partner are insensitive to the suffering of so many people. They know plenty of friends and relatives who have asbestos-related diseases. But it's the death of the community that Feak also worries about. It's always on his mind.

"Big corporations like that, for the amount of work they put you through, you're just a cog in the machinery," he says. "They just grind you up and spit you out, and there's little compensation for what you've done for them. But they're making millions."

& & Jane Fritz is a freelance writer and independent radio producer who lives in Clark Fork, Idaho. & & & &