Saturday, February 12, 2005

They Were Killing Us, They Were Killing Our Wives and Children

LIBBY, Mont. - Les Skramstad said he often dreamed about a long row of wooden gallows on the pinkish-tan dirt of the abandoned vermiculite mine on Zonolite Mountain just outside this tiny town near the Canadian border.

"On those gallows I'd see swinging the bodies of all the company bosses who knew they were killing us, who knew they were killing our wives and children, who knew they were killing this town and other towns where their poisoned ore was handled. They knew it and they hid it," Skramstad said. "I hope I live long enough to see them swing."
So begins the latest article by St. Louis Post Dispatch Reporter Andrew Schneider about the federal indictments of W.R. Grace for their decades-long coverup of the dangers of asbestos to the thousands of workers and residents of Libby, Montana. (Previous Confined Space posts here and here.)

The indictments were largely a result of the campaigns of Skramstad, who suffers from asbestosis and Gayla Benefield, a miner's daughter whose parents died of asbestos-related disease and who is suffering from asbestosis herself. Both battled for years to be taken seriously about the hazardous mineral they knew was killing their town.
But the opposition was tough.

The town's leaders, real estate agents, developers and business owners discredited Benefield and Skramsted's warnings as "crazy," and tried to silence them before tourists fled elsewhere. The medical community insisted the deaths and widespread breathing problems were not unusual and were caused by emphysema. The fact that many victims never smoked wasn't addressed.

State officials and the small Montana office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored Benefield's plea for help. The state's Department of Environmental Quality said it was "unsubstantiated nonsense."

Even though Grace was quietly settling dozens of personal injury suits with miners and their families, they would get only scant notice in the local papers.
It wasn't until two days after Schneiders articles in the Seattle Post Intelligencer appeared telling describing the tragedy of Libby that the EPA finally began their investigation, uncovering the incriminating documents that led to last weeks indictments.
The documents, they said, showed that Grace knew how dangerous the asbestos-tainted vermiculite ore was and how the corporation worked to conceal it. They documented a substantial risk to workers not only at Libby's mine and the town itself but also at hundreds of plants around the country that processed Grace's ore into consumer products.

They also showed that almost every official in the company knew how hazardous the material was, from then-company president J. Peter Grace to the health and safety, marketing and legal departments.


The federal indictments of W.R. Grace can be downloaded here.

The original Seattle Post Intelligencer articles by Andrew Schneider that broke the story can be found here.

Other articles by Schneider in the St. Louis Post Dispatch describing the hazardous conditions near Grace factories and in attics of millions of homes across the nation can be found here.