Fred and Paul Miron are like mirrors, reflecting two sides of the universe: night and day, good and evil, light and dark. You hear it in their voices—Fred the elder brother, talks of his life in the pleasant tone of a man who has enjoyed the beauty of the world. Paul the younger, exiled forever from such light-heartedness by war, his voice echoing with the darkness of all he has seen: the worst of humanity that didn’t end in Vietnam, but persisted in a more subversive way in Libby. Still, they have always been close, tied to one another first by childhood and now by their mortality.
People say Fred has a photographic memory. While his recall may not be perfect, even Fred allows that his mind is pretty darn good. He demonstrates by describing the mill where he once worked for the W.R. Grace corporation practically down to the nuts and bolts. “I was a relief operator, so I knew every job that there was to do,” he says. “I could replace any man at any time.” He started off in the old wet mill, the first stop for the raw ore where it was processed by machines originally built for Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. “In that particular area, there was the three jigs, there was the 70-inch screen, and there were a set of spirals,” he says. “They looked just like a big screw, like a spiral. There was water and a certain amount of product was run down with the water. It worked like on a centrifugal basis. The lighter stuff going to the outside, the heavier stuff to the center, which was the waste.”
From there, the ore was put through a chemical bath. “It was a mixture of amine, which is an animal by-product, it’s kinda like yellow lard. That was all dissolved in water, of course, hot water. And then there was another component that went with it was called black oil, it was like number six black crude oil. Ore would go through a device that would coat it with this oil and amine, which caused it to float. After it had been floated and the majority of the biotite and the green sand, and of course asbestos, were separated from it, it went through a bath of caustic soda to remove the amine and the oil. Then the water was wrung out of it in a machine that we had there. From there it went to the dry mill to some huge dryers that were big rotating horizontal dryers that were fired with oil. It would heat that ore up and get the rest of the moisture out, then it went upstairs and it was screened in the dry mill.”
As he takes me through the process, he puts each man in his job, reciting obituaries for the dead. The guys who cleaned the tailings and mine-to-mill conveyor belts (one dead, one still alive), his foreman at the dry mill (“a miserable little slob, short fat and ugly and he wasn’t in very good health”), his foreman at the loading facility (“I think he croaked. He was also in bad shape with the lungs if I recall correctly. But I do have excellent recall. I’m known for that all my life.”) There’s a hint of humor in his voice, a Michigan accent gilded with the delight of remembering as he talks about the reasons that led him to Montana from the Midwest. His father, an orphan, rode the rails during the Depression and never got his fill of the road. After his parents’ marriage fell apart, Dad set out for Montana and Fred followed shortly after, at age 17.
“When I first went out there, Montana was for people like myself who enjoy the out of doors. I’ve always been extremely interested in wildlife, plant life, you know, the fauna, the flora, the ecology, everything,” he says. “The Libby area was like going back in time 75 years. It was just great. I loved it.” Though he has since moved back to Michigan, to the wild Upper Peninsula country, Fred says he misses the West. “I’d be there still had this not happened, I guarantee you.”
As Fred followed his father, so did Paul follow his brother out West, though the younger man’s journey was less of a jaunt than it was a flight. “I had just come out of Vietnam and it was wintertime, so I didn’t work that winter,” Paul says. “I had always been close with my brother and he was up there so when spring came, I went out there. I was feeling real—I spent two years in Asia and I wasn’t feeling well. I was kinda run down. I thought working in that fresh air and doing some hard work would make me feel better.”
Paul worked as a mucker in the wet mill, keeping the machines and screens clean. “I used hoses a lot, and I used brushes sometimes. It was kind of a pretty wet environment,” he says. “They had high pressure sprays on the screens, you know. Later on I got to thinking asbestos was probably encapsulated in all that water that came off those high-pressure sprays. So whether it was wet or not, I believe you were breathing it, irregardless, you know.”
Both brothers have been diagnosed with asbestosis. Fred suspected for nearly two decades that the dust had damaged his lungs, though he didn’t get the word on paper until 2000. Paul, with no health insurance and no family aside from his brother, has moved into a home run by the Veteran’s Administration in Wisconsin. “Thank god I was really bashed around during the war,” he says. “I’ve got Agent Orange and bunch of other crap so I won’t have to worry about it.”
Still, he is angry, the heat comes off his voice through the phone lines half a continent away. “They talk about the Oklahoma City, the tragedy of that. There was men, woman and children killed here, innocent people. You don’t hear nothing about that. And not one of them ever goes to prison. That’s bull, you know? They’re worried about Grace going bankrupt. My undying wish is that they go bankrupt or dissolve from the face of the earth.”
This article is excerpted from Wasting Libby: the True Story of How the WR Grace Corporation Left a Montana Town to Die (and Got Away With It) published by CounterPunch / AK Press.