by Jane Fritz

Nearly five years have passed since the news first broke about Libby, Mont., and the deaths of hundreds of its people due to asbestos poisoning. Sixty years of vermiculite mining was the culprit. The human health emergency sparked a flurry of activity, and the town's residents became divided on how best to deal with perhaps the worst environmental disaster this country has ever seen.

Once the tragedy was made apparent in 1999, asbestos victims, family members and their advocates first got angry. Then they just found ways to cope. Stricken by asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by inhaling vermiculite, they moved quickly into legal actions against the powerful W.R. Grace & amp; Company; but the mining corporation soon filed for bankruptcy because of asbestos litigation from Libby and elsewhere, and most of the cases never even got to court. Local citizens also had to overcome sluggish or inept state and local government bureaucracies that ignored the tragedy and the citizens' call for help. So the townspeople developed lists, noting who had died and from what disease, while identifying those who were miners and those who were not -- the latter group's only connection being that they lived in Libby. This information became invaluable to the triage team from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who came to town from Denver to investigate how this corporate health scandal happened in the first place.

Gayla Benefield, Les Skramstad and other local citizens became the spokespeople for generations of victims -- past and future. They joined community advisory groups, attended health conferences, went to Helena to meet with the governor and got Sen. Max Baucus to come to Libby to meet with them. They even traveled as far as Washington, D.C., and fought the so-called "Fairness Bill" in Congress to limit insurance claims for asbestos victims. (Nearly 90 percent of Libby's citizens wouldn't have been covered under that law because they didn't meet the medical criteria; there have been other laws proposed to cover even more people, but none has been enacted yet.)

These activists somehow found the energy, time and money to support these efforts despite their own asbestos-related health problems. They told their story to members of the national media again and again, and worked to find the medical support and financial help for those suffering from asbestos exposure. Determined to see their town made safe again for everyone, and despite overwhelming odds, they moved from shock into action.

Other members of the community went from shock into denial. They either questioned that the asbestos problem was real -- after all, it takes electron microscopes to even see the tremolite fibers -- or that the problem was as bad as people claimed. Few people in their camp believed that any good could come of getting the federal government involved. They feared media attention would devastate Libby and further damage their extractive industrial economy, already bruised and battered from lumber mill and mine closures. Local businesses, most notably the real estate market, took a major economic hit when the EPA clean-up team arrived and the town entered the national spotlight.

When former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman came to Libby to assess the scope of the problem and Montana Gov. Judy Martz got on board and fired her "silver bullet" to fast-track Libby as a priority national Superfund site, some of those in the business community became believers, while others thought surely the coffin lid would close on the entire town. Many residents felt the community might never recover.

Because the issue had polarized the town, it called into question whether the two sides would ever come together and keep any sense of community intact. Those folks caught in the middle by fear, uncertainty or ignorance remained in shock. Many of them refused to be screened by medical professionals for asbestos-related diseases. They didn't want to know if they would eventually get sick. But they also wanted the nightmare for their town to end.

Libby Today

On a pleasant spring day, Gayla Benefield, her daughter Jenny Mitchell and her daughter-in-law Amber Benefield mark rows of imaginary gravesites along Libby Creek adjacent to the town's cemetery. Benefield checks her list of names -- people known to have died from asbestos-related causes. With each name, the younger women pound a simple white cross into the earth, each one lettered with a deceased victim's name in black. It is both a tribute and a visual reminder of the hundreds of asbestos victims who have died around Libby. The names include Benefield's parents, Margaret and Perley Vatland. Some future year a cross may be here to mark Benefield's name, her husband's or her daughter's -- all of whom have been diagnosed with early stages of asbestosis. More than 40 of her relatives already have been diagnosed with lung abnormalities.

Norita Skramstad and her daughter, Laurel Porte, are here to help Benefield with placement of the crosses so that they will all be up and ready for Memorial Day. The Skramstads, too, have been diagnosed with the same disease. Norita's husband Les is here, but gets too tired and out of breath doing the manual labor. Les only worked at the mine for two years back in the 1960s, but he was constantly exposed to asbestos on the job. He believes that he and one or two other men are the only ones still alive who worked together. It's hard enough, he says, to deal with the fact that he has the asbestos death sentence, but it's devastating for him to know that he was the cause -- he brought the fibers home from the mine on his clothing -- of what may eventually kill his wife, daughter, his son Brent who also has early stages of asbestosis, and potentially his other children. It's a tragic pattern all too common in this town.

Norita's brother-in-law, Ray Denning, is here, too. A few weeks after the Memorial Day ceremony, Ray's son Jody died. His will be one of the new crosses placed next year. That first year the memorial was held in 2001, there were 170 crosses placed. This year the victim advocates pounded 226 crosses into the ground.

The scene is stark and sad and brings to mind a military cemetery. But these markers highlight the casualties of a very different kind of war, one waged with a corporation whose officers, documents show, knew the dangers all along and yet still continued the mining operation. Benefield and the others plan to keep the annual tradition going so that the people of Libby never forget what happened to their loved ones and their town, and yet she's hopeful that eventually a cure will be found with new research being done, so that the next two generations of friends and family members who have been exposed to asbestos, including most of her grandchildren, won't be part of this remembrance in the future.

"Did you see the obituaries this week?" asks Eva Thompson of her friends around the dinner table. "They're all younger than I am."

Eva is Gayla's sister. Her husband, Don, who worked at the mine, died from asbestos poisoning. It's Thursday and she's with her partner, LeRoy Billadeau, at the weekly Senior Citizen Dinner held in the nearby community of Troy. Les and Norita are here, too, along with several other people suffering from health problems caused by asbestos. Thompson calls the table they sit around "our pew," and this time with her friends from Libby as "our weekly revival," not only because of the companionship, but because the asbestos issue is constantly in their lives. This time together keeps them confident about the progress being made, and helps them not to give in to despair. Thompson claims that with every issue of Libby's weekly paper, The Western News, there are three or four more deaths -- and the victims are getting younger. Nearly every kid who grew up in Libby played in the asbestos-laced vermiculite near where the Little League ball fields used to be, and asbestos was also found by the EPA in the fill dirt of the former ice rink at Plummer Elementary School.

"Each family has to decide what to say in the paper," says Thompson, "and there's typically a reluctance by most people in town to list the cause as asbestos-related. But when you read that a 36-year-old died from natural causes, you know the real reason. This is a small town."

Red Munsel and his wife Rosemarie are also here. Even though he has only the lower lobes of his lungs left from cancer and surgery, he refuses to go around with an oxygen tank at his side and tubes up his nose. He says he's too proud, but he's also bound and determined to stay alive and get every penny he can from W.R. Grace's medical plan. His wife, on the other hand, asks me how they can get on Oprah's television show, because despite two well-researched books published about Libby's plight (An Air That Kills by Andrew Schneider and David McCumber and Libby, Montana by Andrea Peacock) and several television documentaries, not enough is being done for the health of people here, she says.

"Why hasn't Grace been charged with criminal action for what they've done?" she asks. "They knew what was here and used the people like guinea pigs just to make money. This is worse than the Enron debacle," Munsel says with anger in her voice. "A lot of people are sick and dying, and it's only going to get worse."

Indeed, the population of the greater Libby area is about 12,000; already several thousand people have been screened for asbestos impacts. Around 1,100 are patients of the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease, or the CARD clinic. The clinic is now independent of St. John's Lutheran Hospital and is making great strides on its own. Another 400 are patients of Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonologist from Spokane who recently announced that he will be moving his practice to Libby.

"Dr. Whitehouse believes a cure will be found for asbestosis in 10 to 15 years," says Benefield. "This is hopeful news, especially for the children who were exposed. We've already accomplished so much, and the new medical research is exciting," she says. Various collaborative university-based research projects are actively tackling the enigmatic tremolite asbestos particles.

According to local W. R. Grace spokesman Alan Stringer, there are presently 850 patients on the company's medical plan. There's money right now for the Grace Plan because the bankruptcy judge has made allowances. But what the future holds will be determined by the outcome of the asbestos legislation still being debated in Congress, says Stringer. The company is apt to stay in bankruptcy until then. Meanwhile, no additional lawsuits for personal injury can be filed against the company while in that limbo status. Those that were close to trial or settlement for personal injury will have to wait. The Grace Medical Plan is here today, but beneficiaries like Red Munsel and LeRoy Billadeau know there are no assurances that it will be there tomorrow. If the worst-case scenario happens, they won't be able to afford the thousands of dollars in medicines that Grace currently provides.

Cleaning it Up

The community of Libby didn't die, and yet despite years of EPA work, the problem persists. The EPA already has spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to handle Libby's asbestos contamination. W. R. Grace was court-ordered to repay the government for some of those millions.

Almost five years later, the EPA is still cleaning up Libby, and the agency will likely be here for five more years, if not longer. It all depends on federal appropriations, cooperation with the citizens and good science. The original triage team is gone, but the new EPA staff and their contractors plan to be here until the work is done, if the federal money holds out. Some have even bought homes in the area and brought their families with them.

According to the new coordinator, Jim Christiansen, the EPA is charting new territory in Libby; they've never tackled such a pervasive and persistent toxin as this, nor dealt with such overwhelming health impacts. Tons of toxic dust contaminated with the electro-static, tremolite asbestos fibers poured out of the mine daily for decades. It didn't just blow away; it settled in the town. Finding it all is nearly impossible.

So just how clean is Libby today? What have been the setbacks and what have been the victories? Some answers, the EPA says, are straightforward; others are not so easily found. Christiansen says they are moving forward in every area, but some are slower than others, particularly inside the homes. Many of the more obvious sites have been cleaned up, or are contained for now: the expansion plant, Rainy Creek Road, which accesses the mine, the mine itself, the sports tracks at the middle and high schools, and, of course, Plummer Elementary School. Now the EPA is working to remove the asbestos from the homes and yards of Libby residents.

Les and Norita Skramstad spent five weeks living in the Sandman Motel last summer -- courtesy of the government -- while their home and yard was cleaned up and the vermiculite removed. Contractors had to take the ceilings out of their house to get to the insulation, but Norita admits they did a pretty good job of putting cupboards and things back the way they found them. The yard is a different story. What was once a lovely garden spot of shrubs, flowers and lawn is now lumpy and poorly landscaped.

But more important than the mere appearance of people's homes is the change of policy in asbestos tolerance levels. Where once the EPA mantra was to remove any sign of asbestos, the policy now is to at least achieve "non-detect" levels of a higher threshold. These changes may be the result of a new presidential administration -- from Clinton to Bush -- but no one will say that, especially Christiansen. He's doing all he can politically to get the funding he needs to continue the Superfund work in Libby.

And the work is not perfect. When Les and Norita went up in the attic to fetch Christmas decorations last December, they found one whole area above their bedroom that still was lined with the Zonolite vermiculite insulation. After the holidays, they notified the EPA.

"We just trusted them to do a good job," says Les Skramstad. It took six months for a contracting supervisor to get back to the Skramstad house and check it out. They also found more vermiculite insulation under the house. Les and Norita will likely have to move out of their house again this summer to complete the work.

It's why Skramstad joined the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) 11-member board when they were seeking members. Gayla Benefield is the TAG president. It's the oversight committee for the EPA remediation work in Libby. Right now the TAG group is grappling with the revised "non-detect" asbestos levels. Although Christiansen says he is sticking to the best science on tremolite, Benefield and others sense a move to accepting the old chrysotile asbestos standards. That worries her and the rest of the TAG members because the new and old standards are two different beasts.

But there are also empowering successes in the TAG's efforts. They have met with officials from the recently closed Stimson Lumber Mill in Libby to get that area inspected and cleaned up. And where Benefield thinks progressively, Skramstad balances her optimism with his hard, indisputable reality. He's known to bring in baggies of soil from EPA-approved and cleaned-up areas that are still sparkling with flakes of vermiculite. He did this at a recent Community Advisory Group (CAG) monthly meeting, where status reports are made and the public is allowed to comment, and Alan Stringer from W.R. Grace actually accused Skramstad of planting it on purpose. It's this kind of comment that gets the soft-spoken Skramstad really riled.

"They are treating this like a minor cut on the finger or something, instead of this real, tragic substance that kills people," he says.

The EPA hopes to take what they've accomplished in Libby and replicate it across the nation for thousands of workers and their families employed at the industrial plants that processed the contaminated ore from Libby. (It boggles the mind to imagine how the EPA could possibly be of help to the millions of people living in homes across the country with vermiculite insulation.) Libby is a good model for how cooperation can be restored to a community hit by tragedy, and how the government can work for the people. You can bet that folks in other towns struck by the asbestos tragedy will want to emulate an effective environmental and social activism fostered in Libby.

"Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can pull yourself up," says Benefield. "It has changed all of our lives."

A Town Renewed

Over the years, the Libby business community has become more amenable to listening to the activists and to working with the EPA. There are still a few business owners in denial, but the Chamber of Commerce as a group has made it a mission to promote a healthy and more positive image of Libby. Although they usually don't voluntarily offer information about the asbestos issue unless people ask, at least now they're willing to talk about it. But in a well-designed, full-color 2003 Visitors Guide, only a heavenly scenario is promoted: "Libby has everything you need... a thriving community surrounded by spectacular scenery... beautiful downtown... the best accommodations, great restaurants and the right recreation activities for you and your family." In the 30-page tourism guide, there is not one word about the asbestos problems.

Donna Hall finds nothing wrong with that message. She is a 27-year resident who moved to Libby from New York City. A chamber member, she's a real estate broker with Town & amp; Country Property Real Estate. She says the realty market started picking up in earnest last year, and this year has been the hottest, most lucrative year ever for those in the local real estate business.

"The town is really percolating," she says. There are new businesses downtown, a new multi-million dollar arts and humanities complex built where the old Memorial auditorium once stood, a new gas station and a sense that it's a far more safe place to live than before. The annual Logger Days held a couple weeks ago brought in 3,000 people.

"There's a lot of positive feedback for how we're facing problems head-on now, how we're working together," adds Hall.

Hall says people moving here have told her they aren't afraid of the asbestos and they don't feel like their health will be compromised because of the continued health screenings and house inspections. Although other realtors in town have had an occasional sale fall through when the client finds out about the asbestos problem, she herself hasn't. Hall admits there is a lot of work for the EPA still to do, but says Libby is still the best place to raise a family.

"The media painted us as a dark, dreary town," Hall says. "The TV crew for 20/20 came here in the middle of winter and filmed the downtown at 6 am. Now is that fair?" she asks. "We are fixing the problem, and 20 years from now, yes, there'll be a lot more sick people; but the town itself will survive. Libby is not dead. You punch us in the stomach, and we come back. I love this town."

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Publication date: 07/08/04

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