Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Libby Asbestos Activist Dies; Residents Consider Buyout

Les Skramstad died Sunday. He was 70.

I often complain about how workplace fatalities get very little press. Every couple of weeks, Tammy and I publish the Weekly Toll, a partial list of workers killed in the workplace. But that list includes only those workers killed in traumatic accidents -- falls, trench collapses, traffic accidents, etc. It almost never includes the almost 1000 Les Skramstads who die of workplace related disease, like mesothelioma, every week.

But Les Skramstad was more than just another occupational disease fatality.
Skramstad had been diagnosed with mesothelioma _ a rare, fast-moving cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs _ about a month ago, his son said. He had several tumors in his stomach and had been previously diagnosed with asbestosis, which has been compared to a slow, constant suffocation.

He was best known as a voice for many of Libby's sickened residents. He lobbied Congress for financial relief for those who could not pay their many medical bills.

The vermiculite, used in a variety of household products, contained tremolite asbestos that was released into the air and carried home on miners' clothing. It is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people and sickening one of every eight Libby residents. Skramstad worked at the mine in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Brent Skramstad said that he has also developed asbestos-related disease, as did his sister and his mother, Norita.

"Hopefully there's somebody who will take his place now," Skramstad said of his father. "Because this is something you never want to be dropped. You want people to be held accountable for it."
In 2005, the Justice Department indicted the W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its current or former executives and department heads for conspiring to conceal information about the hazardous nature of the company’s asbestos contaminated vermiculite products, obstructing the government’s clean-up efforts, and wire fraud. Approximately 1,200 residents of Libby have been identified as suffering from some kind of asbestos-related disease and over 400 have died.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Sun's Andrew Schneider, who originally broke the Libby story, reports that despite the tens of millions of dollars spent by the Enfironmental Protection Agency to clean up the town, there no one is sure if the town can really be cleaned up enough to be safe. Some residents are now suggesting that the EPA or Grace buy them out so that they can move to a safer location.
Talk of a buyout took hold after the EPA's inspector general said in a report last month that, because the agency has not determined the safe level of human exposure to the asbestos in Grace's vermiculite, the "EPA cannot be sure that the ongoing Libby cleanup is sufficient to prevent humans from contracting asbestos-related diseases."

The IG report also said the EPA must "fund and execute a comprehensive study to determine the effectiveness of the Libby cleanup" with special attention on the effects of asbestos exposure on children.

Paul Peronard, the EPA emergency coordinator who has been involved in the cleanup since the beginning in 1999, said, "The EPA has no plans for a mass relocation or buyout, although the concept is not off the table. Right now the judgment is the community would be better served by fixing the problem in place."

However, he added, "There is a possibility that our analytical methods are not sensitive enough to measure down low enough to say there is no risk, and with this type of asbestos we cannot say that we ultimately will know what level will be deemed acceptable."
Meanwhile, Grace, which declared bankruptcy in 2001, has been studying the costs and benefits of a buyout.

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