LIBBY, Mont. (Nov. 29) -- On Thanksgiving week 11 years ago, a regional Environmental Protection Agency boss ordered three of his top agents to rush to a remote Montana town to disprove a newspaper's report of hundreds of people dying because of exposure to asbestos from a nearby vermiculite mine.
The EPA experts thought it unbelievable that an environmental accident could destroy so many in one tiny town and they didn't know about it.
For the most part, the townsfolk themselves had no idea of the scope of the disease that had been killing them for years.
Sure, about one house in three had lost a loved one to lung disease or had another one or two family members trying to stay alive sucking oxygen out of a green tank. But even when victims coughed up blood, the doctors in town blamed it on smoking or asthma, bronchitis or allergies. The word "asbestos" was never mentioned.
The one local doctor who thought differently had his hospital privileges revoked and was forced out of town.
That changed in 1985 when, 160 miles west in Spokane, Wash., Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonary specialist with an extensive background in asbestos disease of the lungs, began seeing a number of vermiculite miners, and then their wives and then ill people who just lived in Libby.
Whitehouse wasn't worried about what the mining bosses would say. He told his patients whose lungs were riddled with disease that asbestos caused it.
The mine, last owned and operated by W.R. Grace & Co., closed in 1990. When the EPA arrived nine years later, it found many of Libby's dwellings -- from single-wides to modest homes and costly log lodges -- inundated with asbestos-loaded vermiculite. It was not only in the homes, gardens, roadways and ball fields but also on the school yards.
Libby Beautiful in Its Plainness
The town of Libby is vanilla plain and simple. No gussied-up phony storefronts or attractions for the tourists. About all that's ever touted is the annual Nordic Festival, celebrating the town's ethnic heritage, and a logging festival, celebrating its disappearing economic roots.
Don't misunderstand. Libby is worth visiting. Its culinary treasure is the Libby Cafe, which serves up huckleberry flapjacks wrapped around what's probably the best breakfast in Montana.
Libby has always been a company town. Logging, lumber mills and silver, lead and copper mines opened and closed like the changing seasons.
But in 1924, a Montana version of prosperity hit this community 70 miles south of the Canadian border when the Zonolite Mining Co. began pulling vermiculite ore from what it named Zonolite Mountain, six miles east of Libby. Over the years, the mine became the area's largest employer, a title firmly held on to during the 30 years after W.R. Grace bought and operated the mine.
Part 1: Government Refuses to Act on Cancer-Causing Insulation
Madison Square Garden Case Illustrates Paranoia
What to Do If You Have Zonolite Insulation
Part 2: Cancer Patient's Home a 'Living Laboratory' for Deadly Fibers
Part 3: 'In Libby, There Was No Maybe' About Dangers
Part 4: Asbestos Dangers Known Centuries Ago, but Battle Continues
Grace put food on the tables of the people of Libby. But it also put fibers of asbestos into their lungs.
Trains and trucks carried the ore to Grace's processing plants in hundreds of cities throughout North America and to seaports for shipment overseas. At their destinations, the ore was run through high-temperature furnaces and then added to garden products (the silver flecks in potting soil), mixed with cement for fireproofing, added to litter for cat boxes and used in a hundred other ways. But at least half of the popped vermiculite was bagged and sold as insulation for walls and attics.
The people of Libby were proud when they saw how far and wide their vermiculite went.
We're From the Government
Within hours of arriving in the town of fewer than 3,000 people in 1999, the EPA team -- Emergency Coordinator Paul Peronard, Senior Toxicologist Chris Weis and Environmental Medical Director Dr. Aubrey Miller -- was met with a freeze colder than the seemingly endless Montana winter.
"My people don't much like environmentalists -- federal, state or any tree hugger. They've destroyed the logging industry and meddled in everything else that we do to earn a living here," said the mayor at the time, who added that he was a staunch Grace supporter because "they'd done much for Libby."
The EPA is used to not being loved
The team assumed Whitehouse would be the best person to shoot down the newspaper's claims of widespread death and massive illness. But he didn't.
Whitehouse told Miller that he'd treated thousands of cases of asbestos illness but that the Libby cases were different.
Unlike the fibers of other types of asbestos, what contaminated the vermiculite were asbestos fibers that were needle-like, sharply pointed and able to penetrate the lining of the lungs more easily.
Whitehouse, who looks as if he could be the family doc on a Norman Rockwell cover, lowered his voice and told Miller that people exposed to asbestos before the mine closed in 1990 will be dying for decades to come.
The young U.S. Public Health Service physician said he was in a daze as he drove, white-knuckled, the snowy road back to Libby. But he was in for an equal shock the following week.
The three feds sat together in the bleachers of the middle school auditorium and watched about 600 people, a good chunk of the town, crowd into the metal folding chairs on the floor.
The chairs filled with grown men, many full-bearded, rubbing hands gnarled from felling trees or shoveling ore, decked out in heavy flannel shirts. They were worn-looking loggers, miners and truck drivers, their wives fiercely clutching their arms. Everyone seemed terrified, not so much at what the politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats were saying from the stage but from the sea of neighbors surrounding them.
These stoic Montanans rarely showed emotion at anything except perhaps a really big buck or a beautiful newborn son or daughter. This night, though, men stared open-mouthed at lifelong neighbors, watching as they noisily sucked air through tubes connected to oxygen bottles.
"You too?" one asked.
A quick nod.
And tears flowed from men who never cried at funerals.
By the end of the meeting, there was painful agreement that the 192 deaths from asbestos-related disease from the mine and the hundreds more sickened that the newspaper reported probably weren't even close to the actual body count.
Peronard and his gang watched this combination revival meeting and Irish wake, and they looked pale.
The EPA team leader shook his head at what he was watching and said it felt as if "someone had ripped the lining of my stomach out. ... Everybody has failed them up to this point, and I'm going to make sure that stops. We've got to do right by these people."
According to the company's correspondence and court documents, about a half-million pounds of vermiculite went through the mine's processing plant on the mountain every day. Tests in 1969 showed that 24,000 pounds of vermiculite spewed daily from large stacks atop Zonolite Mountain.
Scientists determined that 20 percent of the dust was asbestos fibers that contaminated the ore. When the wind was from the east, at least 5,000 pounds of asbestos a day fell snow-like onto the town, often so thick that children could write their names in the dust on their parents' cars.
The Dangers Were Known and Hidden
No one stepped in to stop the dying.
Grace could have. Thousands of the company's internal documents showed that officials had known about the danger from the tainted vermiculite for decades and repeatedly tried and failed to somehow remove the asbestos. Grace never mentioned the hazard to its workers or customers.
Even before Whitehouse made his discovery, the EPA knew the Zonolite was a killer 17 years before the story broke in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 440 miles away.
The agency had hired a group of scientists to evaluate the amount of asbestos exposure received by miners on Zonolite Mountain, the people of Libby and those who worked and lived near the hundreds of vermiculite-processing plants Grace had built throughout the country.
The EPA contractors measured wind direction and speed, the volume of dust thrown into the air and proximity to the processing plants. They turned in a lengthy, detailed report showing that thousands of people were likely receiving asbestos exposure that could sicken if not kill them.
But the agency apparently stuck the report in a file at its Washington headquarters, never once warning anyone of the dangers. It was three months after the EPA team arrived in Libby that a researcher found a copy of the 1982 report and gave it to Peronard.
The career EPA professional was raging mad. Neither he nor the rest of the team could believe that their agency could have such devastating -- and life-saving -- information and do nothing to protect the people at risk.
But the belated public attention to what was happening in Libby was almost as unwelcome in Washington as it was in Grace's headquarters.
As much as people at their pay grade could, Peronard, Weis and Miller demanded that the government declare a public health emergency so there would be more money for the cleanup and for medical treatment of Libby's victims. They also urged the EPA to launch an intense campaign to warn millions of home and business owners throughout the county that they may have walls and attics filled with asbestos-loaded vermiculite insulation.
Not only were the trio's efforts attacked by Grace but they were slapped down by members of Congress, their own headquarters and even the White House, especially about the Zonolite warning.
"Already Hundreds in the Graveyard"
Libby was a unique and often painful experience for the seasoned EPA team that flew north from its regional headquarters in Denver to help.
"In our previous emergency-response missions, we were always trying to remove environmental hazards that might someday, somehow, maybe harm someone. In Libby, there was no maybe,'' Peronard said a few years into the cleanup. "There were already hundreds in the graveyard, and thousands more were sickened by the asbestos.''
The death of one asbestos victim, in particular, bothered many.
Les Skramstad was a sweet-singing cowboy who worked just long enough with the tainted ore at Libby's asbestos-contaminated Zonolite mine to kill him, sicken his wife and two of his children. He and Gayla Benefield, who'd lost her parents to Zonolite, fought loudest and hardest against Grace and for the EPA to do something.
In a midnight conversation with a reporter on New Year's Eve, barely a month before he died in 2007 and in a voice that was just a gravelly whisper, Skramstad lamented the government's failure to warn people across the country that the Zonolite insulation in their attics could kill them just as quickly as the vermiculite that was taking his life.
"They knew before this was a killer, and they didn't tell us," he said. "Now, there's no doubt about how deadly it is. We know it because people here are hooked up to oxygen tanks or dying all over Libby.
"How can the government not tell innocent people who have never heard of this stuff that it can kill them just like it's killing us?" he asked that night.
Criminal Charges Filed
In 2001 Grace, which started business in 1854 as the world's leading supplier of South American bird guano, filed for bankruptcy protection. Its president, Paul Norris, said it did so to protect the company from more than 325,000 asbestos personal-injury claims, which have already cost the company nearly $2 billion. As many as a million more claims were expected.
But that did not protect it from criminal charges.
In February 2004, the Justice Department launched what it said was the biggest environmental crime prosecution in U.S. history. The indictments charged Grace and seven current or former executives and managers with knowingly endangering the public and Libby mine workers through exposure to asbestos and concealed the information.
If found guilty, Grace could have been fined up to $280 million and its executives could have faced prison terms of as much as 60 years.
Civil lawyers who looked at the evidence, including thousands of pages of Grace documents, thought it would be a slam-dunk for the small but feisty team of Montana federal prosecutors and investigators who brought the charges.
But last May, 12 jurors acquitted the company and its people on all charges.
The prosecution was stymied at almost every turn. The three assistant U.S. attorneys were out-gunned on all fronts. Grace had 21 lawyers and about 100 law clerks and researchers working out of war rooms rented throughout Missoula. The defense spent well over $100 million. And some of Grace's $1,000-an-hour lawyers seemed to rule the courtroom, with the judge's blessing.
When the 11-week trial was over, few residents of Libby wanted to talk about it.
"It's over. The government did the best it could, and they lost," Benefield said.
In June, Libby finally got the public health emergency and a promise that the medical bills of all asbestos victims would be paid by the government.
There are funerals for asbestos victims almost every week, and the town's small asbestos diagnosis clinic is crammed with new patients, she said.
"Libby is not a very cynical place, and for the most part, we trust each other. Hell, most of the town trusted Grace and could never believe that they knew their vermiculite was killing their miners and their families and everyone else and did nothing," Benefield said.
"Now almost everyone knows they shouldn't have been trusted. But for most, it's too late."
EDITOR'S NOTE: For more than a decade, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Andrew Schneider has followed the saga of the tiny town of Libby, Mont., the asbestos-tainted vermiculite that was mined there and W.R. Grace & Co., the company that shipped the lethal ore throughout the world. Schneider broke the story while with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and followed it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Baltimore Sun. Schneider and David McCumber authored "An Air That Kills." In this four-part report, AOL News' senior public health reporter examines the government's history of neglect in informing the public about the dangers of a killer that lurks in the attics and walls of millions of homes.
Part 4: Asbestos Dangers Known Centuries Ago, but Battle Continues