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Indictments Stir Emotions in Asbestos-Riddled Mine Town

Times Staff Writer

Zonolite Mountain was very good to Libby, or so it once seemed. It was also a killer.

Now that the federal government has indicted seven mining executives on allegations of deliberately concealing that second part, this northwestern Montana town is full of people who are angry, shocked, sickened, betrayed. They just can’t agree on why.

For many here, where the population has been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases at more than 40 times the national average, the grand jury’s charges last week against W.R. Grace & Co. have only amplified the deep revulsion they feel for the Zonolite mine’s owner.

“How could human beings do this to other human beings?” said Les Skramstad, 68, a former sweeper and dump boss at the vermiculite mine, who describes his lung-impairing asbestosis this way: It’s like someone put a plastic bag over his head and sealed it with duct tape, leaving only a tiny slit for air. “How could they poison miners, their wives, their children?”

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Federal prosecutors said they did it for money -- $140 million in after-tax profits -- and were so efficient they even got rid of the mine’s scraps. Grace donated those dusty tailings to the town, which used them to pave the Libby High School track and create the foundation for an ice-skating rink at Plummer Elementary School.

The U.S. attorney for Montana, William W. Mercer, said Grace must be held accountable for “a human and environmental tragedy.”

But plenty of people in Libby, even those who have lost loved ones to the frightening effects of asbestos, say they agree with Grace’s adamant contention that it is getting a bum rap. They are especially angry about the indictments of two managers at the mine.

“I know them both, and they’re honorable men,” said Ed Baker, 62, who owns Ed’s Threads, a local clothing store, and served for 22 years on Libby’s City Council.

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“This is a terrible thing that’s being done to them,” he said. “They’re scapegoats.”

Baker’s father was one of hundreds of people here with great-paying Grace jobs. A mine foreman, he died of asbestosis in 1983 at the age of 71, his lungs “turned to solid concrete,” Baker said. It was agonizing. But he does not blame Grace: In fact, he donated one of his father’s lungs to the company for study.

Baker and other staunch Grace defenders said it had spent enormous amounts of money on cleanup and healthcare, acting responsibly once it became clear how deadly asbestos was.

“No one knew it was this bad for you until later,” Baker insisted, referring to the golden-flecked vermiculite laced into the mountain, a seemingly magic mineral that made for spectacularly effective insulation and was put in millions of home attics and tens of thousands of office buildings.

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The Libby mine, in operation from 1939 to 1992, once produced 80% of the world supply. It was purchased by Grace in 1963.

“When I was a kid, we used to go up to the mine and play in it, like it was snow,” added Baker. “It was fluffy. It was fun.

“No one would let kids play in it if they thought it would kill you,” he said.

The indictment says otherwise. As far back as 1976, according to the charges, Grace officials knew vermiculite was laden with deadly asbestos, but they kept the immensely profitable mine open and didn’t warn workers.

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The company debated internally what to do.

According to a 1976 memo citing statistics from Henry A. Eschenbach, a director of health, safety and toxicology in Grace’s industrial chemical group, 63% of Libby mine employees with more than 10 years of service tested positive for lung ailments.

In 1978, Eschenbach, one of the indicted men, received a report from an epidemiology firm Grace hired: It concluded there were “a number of quite young individuals with obvious asbestos disease” at the mine.

On Nov. 26, 1980, according to the indictment, a memo for discussion among senior Grace executives laid out options.

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The first option was to “obstruct and block, possibly even contesting in the courts.” But, the memo added, “we’d lose and this is not exactly the image we try to project.”

The second option was among those favored: “Be slow, review things extensively and contribute to delay. This might not be bad policy generally and it is possible that the new administration’s policies will make NIOSH more selective in how scarce resources are allocated after January 20, 1981.”

That was the date of the presidential inauguration of Ronald Reagan, who had campaigned against overzealous and cumbersome regulation of industry; the indictment charges company officials with obstructing an investigation by NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

In a 1982 memo, the indictment said, Eschenbach reported on a study of 66 death certificates of employees: “Our major problem is death from respiratory cancer. This is no surprise.”

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In 1983, mine officials decided against requiring workers to shower and change out of a uniform, a proposed means to minimize “take-home dust.” A memo from one defendant said it would “only cause unwarranted fear or concern” in Libby.

In a statement issued last week, when the indictments were announced, Grace categorically denied any criminal wrongdoing.

“Though court rules prohibit us from commenting on the merits of the government’s charges,” the statement added, “we look forward to setting the record straight in a court of law.”

Grace, based in Columbia, Md., filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, citing asbestos-related claims at Libby and elsewhere. As those proceedings continue, it maintains annual sales of about $2 billion with operations in nearly 40 countries.

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Many here say it is time to put aside the controversy over the asbestos-laden mineral, a mainstay of the local economy for decades. They say media coverage, kicked off in 1999 by a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now the indictments, are unfairly hurting efforts to attract new businesses.

“We just need to keep moving forward and keep a positive attitude,” said an editorial Friday in the Western News, the semiweekly newspaper.

But among those here who pursued the company relentlessly over the years, no spotlight on Libby’s suffering could be bright enough.

“We need a guilty verdict,” said Gayla Benefield, 61, a former Libby bartender who is hurt by criticism from fellow residents.

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“They said we were ruining the town, ruining the community,” Benefield said. “Somehow it became my fault that the lumber mill shut down.”

Benefield said her parents died of asbestosis and she and her husband had both been diagnosed with it.

She and others have also pointed to mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer. It normally occurs in nine people per million; there are least 20 cases among the Libby area’s 8,000 residents, according to the indictment.

Some here are deeply torn. They want someone to be held accountable, but they’re not sure the local managers are to blame.

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“They aren’t the type of people who would injure people intentionally,” said LeRoy Thom, 50, who worked for 17 1/2 years at the mine and was president of the local of the International Union of Operating Engineers. He also has asbestosis.

“Some people want them burned at the stake, but I can’t see that would do any good,” Thom said. “Anyhow, what’s done is done. The past is past.”


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