Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Asbestos: Leavitt Leaves Libby in Lurch

I’ve often written about the fact that workers getting killed on the job get very little press attention because they die one at a time, and often doing unglamorous work like digging trenches or working in unpleasant factories.

Natural disaster victims often get much more attention. They die in larger numbers in more television-friendly environments: buildings flattened by hurricanes or tornados, fancy houses burned in forest fires.

Over the past week, citizens of Florida have been getting their share of attention due to Hurricane Charlie: more than two dozen killed and massive property damage. Plus, Charlie was considerate enough to strike in a swing state during an election year, drawing lots of attention by politicians – especially those of the bush variety.

Not so for hundreds workers and their families dying of asbestos-related disease in Libby, Montana, which has been designated a Superfund site due to the asbestos pollution bequeathed upon the community by W.R. Grace. (Montana, for those who are not familiar with it, is a thinly populated state in the northwest that has only a few electoral votes that always go Republican.). Unfortunately, being declare a Superfund site ain’t what it used to be. President Bush has proposed cutting EPA funding and the Republicans in Congress are refusing to replenish the formerly polluter-funded Superfund trust fund.

That's why Montana Sen. Max Baucus last fall demanded that EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt travel to Libby for a firsthand look at the problem and to meet the people who so desperately need his agency's full attention. Baucus extracted a promise from Leavitt to visit as a condition for Senate confirmation of his nomination to the top EPA post.

Many people in Libby eagerly looked forward to Leavitt's visit. Townspeople gathered signatures on a resolution beseeching the EPA to do its utmost to execute a speedy and complete cleanup, to follow up with monitoring and provision for unexpected contingencies, and also to help the town emerge out from under the cloud of threat and uncertainty - help toward a more prosperous future. Many residents wrote letters to present to him when he came. They never got the chance.

After twice canceling scheduled visits to the town, Leavitt made a quick, unannounced visit to Libby Aug. 13. EPA staffers awkwardly responded to rumors circulating in advance of his arrival by reading from a short script about "national security concerns" precluding any comment of the administrator's schedule. When he appeared, Leavitt met with only a few folks, for a short while, then he left. We don't know about the people of Libby, but we're disappointed. Sure, the administrator is a busy man. But a lot of folks in Libby are busy too - busy fighting for their lives.

Truth be told, however, it isn't Leavitt's time we want. It's his commitment and his agency's action we need. Short and limited as it was, his recent visit will more than suffice if he follows through and makes certain that the Libby cleanup is fully funded and expeditious, and that the government follows through to help the community and its citizens find a prosperous future.

Did Leavitt stop in Libby merely to put a check on his to-do list? Or did he come really intending to help? His follow-through will provide the answer.

National security concerns? Personally, I think Mr. Leavitt has much more to fear from the good citizens of Libby than he does from Al Qaida. After all, they’ve already been victims of weapons of mass destruction, thanks to W.R. Grace.

More on the tragedy of Libby, Montana here, here and here.