A vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana.
Supplying the world with materials for insulation and potting soil.
The vermiculite has asbestos.
And the asbestos has poisoned the town.
Killed 275 of its residents.
And sickened thousands of others.
For years, the feds didn’t do anything about it.
Neither did the state of Montana.
Finally in 2004 – under heavy pressure from the community – the company and seven executives were indicted.
For violating federal environmental laws.
Charges against four of the executives were tossed.
And last year, a jury came back with not guilty verdicts against the company and remaining three executives.
Montana journalist Andrea Peacock tells the moving story in her new book – Wasting Libby: The True Story of How The WR Grace Corporation Left a Montana Town to Die – And Got Away With It (CounterPunch / AK Press, 2010).
Actor Jeff Bridges says the book “tells the story of a small town in Montana that was contaminated then discarded.”
“Libby is littered with the dead and the dying, poisoned by the corporation that employed them and ignored by a government it trusted to protect them,” Bridges writes in a foreword to the book. “As she uncovers the layers of this betrayal, she also discovers the resilience of the people of Libby.”
After years of inaction, why finally did the government decide to criminally prosecute the company and the executives?
“It was such an outrageous case,” Peacock told me last week.
“Before the criminal case was brought, I always thought – if we could just put a few of these guys in jail.”
“Not just in the Libby case, but in all of these cases where corporate executives take deliberate actions to harm people, if we just start sending a few of these guys to jail, it might be enough of a deterrent that other companies would think twice.”
“In this case, the harm wasn’t financial – they killed people.”
“And it was such an egregious example, that the EPA and the Department of Justice must have felt they had to do something about it.”
“The original criminal case was dismissed. They were permitted to file a superceding indictment. The defendants were charged with violations of the Clean Air Act – and there were conspiracy and obstruction charges.”
The trial lasted a little over eleven weeks. It ended on May 8, 2009.
“Everyone was acquitted,” Peacock said. “Originally, there were seven defendants. One of them died while waiting for trial. The other one was an attorney for Grace and had his case severed, then later it was dismissed. Five individuals and the corporation were tried. Toward the end of the trial, the charges were dismissed against two of the individuals. And the company and the other three were acquitted by the jury.”
“Between the statutes of limitation and dates the prosecutors had to work with, it was a difficult case to win.”
To Gayla Benefield, who lead the citizens demand for a criminal prosecution, the not guilty verdict was a bitter pill.
Benefield lost her mother and father to asbestos disease.
And she now has asbestosis.
“The activists were terribly disappointed with the verdict,” Peacock says. “They saw this case as their best shot at some kind of official recognition that a wrong had been done. It was their one big shot at justice.”
“There is still a possibility that the state of Montana could bring homicide charges. But I don’t think anyone has any interest in that now. They felt this federal case was their chance. When that didn’t work out, they have all pretty much have gone on with their lives.”
How can a journalist remain objective when faced with such death and disease and injustice?
“I like to present what I see and let people draw their own conclusions,” Peacock says.
“In this case, it was so clear cut what had been done to the people there. There were thousands of individual stories. But the bottom line was that Grace had inflicted a terrible wrong on Libby. There was no way around that.”
RUSSELL MOKHIBER is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter.
[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Andrea Peacock, see 24 Corporate Crime Reporter 29(11), July 19, 2010, print edition only.]