An Air That Kills

by JOHN HOLT

AN AIR THAT KILLS: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana, Uncovered a National Scandal is about small-town Montana and the devastating horrors visited on it by a vermiculite mine owned by those fun-loving corporate bastards at W.R. Grace & Co, and the Zonolite Company before it. The mining of vermiculite, used in products ranging from insulation to potting soil, led to exposure to asbestos that caused and is causing the deaths of hundreds of Libby residents. Grace knew of the dangers, but didn’t tell the workers or their families of the deadly dangers associated with living in an environment where more than two and a half tons of asbestos were released into the town’s air every day, when One heavy exposure or even one tiny fiber can inaugurate the downward spiral to the grave.

A third of the town received what one Libby resident accurately described as "the death sentence," possible lung abnormalities which could indicate early stages of asbestosis (a malignant disease caused by minute but lethal knife-like fibers of asbestos that causing hardening of delicate lung tissue, among other things, and makes breathing impossible in its final stages). Miners who’d worked for Grace or Zonolite were hardest hit. Almost half of these former employees had signs of the disease that would guarantee them a lingering and painful death. The national average for these diseases in a community is 2 percent or less.

I’m not known for impartiality. That’s not my style. When it comes to writing about An Air That Kills by Andrew Schneider and David McCumber I don’t have a chance. McCumber was my editor at Big Sky Journal when the magazine premiered oh so long ago. Before taking the job of managing editor at the Seattle Post Intelligencer he was my neighbor in Livingston, Montana. We’re close friends. And one of the main attorneys representing the victims in this horribly revealing book is Jon Heberling, an individual who is not only a long-time friend, but someone I had the privilege of working with when we shut down the Flathead National Forest’s lunatic Forest Plan of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He’s also the godfather of my daughter, Rachel. And I used to live in Whitefish, Montana just a short drive over the mountains from where this book takes place.

I spent many days cruising over to Libby to fish the Kootenai River for rainbow and cutthroat trout, and the rare redband trout in little streams way back up in the timbered mountains that surround the valley. Not once did any of those I came in contact with, individuals that profited by living in the Libby area, mention the problem ­ not the guides and outfitters, not the local Chamber of Commerce, not any of the town’s merchants, not a noted writer I spent a little time with who lives in the area. Nobody. And they all knew. How could they not have known when men, and later wives and children, had died and were dying hellish deaths from lung diseases caused by the mine.

"Hey, man, talking about death is bad for the local economy. Keep quiet and it will go awa,." Seemed to be the party line all too often.. Fortunately people like Libby residents Gayle Benefield, Les Skramstad and others would not remain silent, would not be shoved out of the dark picture, would not be intimidated. In a book of great sorrow, these are the heroes.

Hell, I figured the place was just another northwest Montana community that made its living from mining, logging, and tourism. A place that also had some pretty fair trout fishing in the bargain. I’ll always regret not looking a little closer at what was going down in this part of the woods. Fortunately Schneider, McCumber and other members of the PI’s staff did look and notice. What they found is awful, made all the more so by the knowledge that what happened to Libby, how Grace does business, is merely standard operating procedure throughout most of corporate America.

Just consider some of the following:

Millions of us are still threatened by asbestos in out homes, where we work. Most of us believe that using asbestos is now illegal. It isn’t. The authors write "Nobody is sure how many homes contain Zonolite. Estimates range from 15 million to 35 million. But according to the EPA and U.S. Justice Department’s tally of W.R. Grace invoices the company shipped billions of pounds of tainted ore to more than 750 processing plants throughout North America. Most of those companies produced attic insulation."

Many automobile brakes are made with asbestosis. "About six million mechanics have been exposed to asbestos since 1940those exposures are now resulting in 580 asbestos-related excess cancer deaths per year. Within 10 years, the expected rate of mesothelioma deaths alone will be 200 a year from exposure to brake dust."

And here’s a a big surprise. The Bush White House, through its Office of Management and Budget, blocked the EPA’s long-awaited declaration of a public health emergency in Libby in April 2002, and an accompanying warning to millions of citizens that their homes and businesses might contain Grace’s deadly asbestos-contaminated insulation. A drastically watered-down memo was finally made public. The authors’ also reveal the Bush White House’s successful campaign to cover up the asbestos problem in lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The authors write " Documents from the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality showed a repeated pattern of downplaying the hazard to health even when the sparse information available showed just the opposite ­ to the extent of ordering headlines of government news releases changed completely so no threat or hazard was ever conveyed." One asbestosis-stricken Libby resident said, "Twenty years from now, when those New Yorkers start falling over dead, some young government bureaucrat will get all choked up apologizing for what the EPA and others didn’t do."

Schneider and McCumber look at the ongoing debate on Capitol Hill over legislation to create a mechanism for resolving asbestos claims outside the judicial system. The authors show how one bill currently under consideration, proposed in 2003 by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, will prevent many current and future victims of asbestos from being eligible for compensation. They point out that jackals that infest the attorney profession are initiating class action litigation that offers victims small compensation while eliminated their rights to sue for future illnesses and wrong doings.

Schneider and McCumber aren’t just run-of-the-mill journalists. Schneider’s won a pair of Pulitzers, a National Headliner Award, a Society of Professional Journalists’ public service award, and the George Polk Award. McCumber was a 1984 Pulitzer finalist at the Arizona Daily Star. He edited a Pulitzer-winning project there. He is a past winner of the Don Bolles Award for investigative journalism. His books The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch; Playing off the Rail; and X-Rated are crystalline, poignant examinations of microcosmic aspects of American life that expand to reveal much greater truths.

So when these two talk about the link between the EPA’s failure to follow up on its own reports detailing the hazards of Libby’s ore, and the Regan Administration’s "Private Sector Survey on Cost Control," which was headed by J. Peter Grace, CEO of W.R. Grace & Co., and in an interview with William Ruckelshaus, who served as the EPA’s first administrator in 1970, and again during the Reagan years, the authors quote Ruckelshaus as saying " If Grace’s company owned that mine in Libby or had any other major involvement with asbestos, (Peter Grace) shouldn’t have been reviewing actions dealing with the regulation of the asbestos industry" ­ when Schneider and McCumber discuss these issues, I listen.

And when the two write about W.R. Grace’s cynical strategy to reassign employees whose X-rays showed significant signs of disease to less dirty jobs so as to minimize their exposure to asbestos dust in order to keep them on the job until they retired, and preclude the high cost of total liability; or when they expose the company touting its "Libby Medical Program" for anyone in the town diagnosed with asbestosis, even as the program repeatedly denies coverage to applicants and refuses to pay for some of their medications and oxygen, when Schneider and McCumber write about these things and many other indecencies, I believe them.

If An Air That Kills just served the purpose of exposing W.R. Grace’s criminal and barbaric treatment of the Libby mine workers and their families, the book would have covered its purchase cost going away. It would be an important title. As it is, this significant work serves as an example of how not only hundreds of companies in this country view doing business, but how corporate entities around the world callously make a buck. An Air That Kills is required reading for anyone who cares.

JOHN HOLT has been called the Hunter Thompson of Montana. He is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: jholt@msn.net

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