Dying to Make a Living: the Shame of Industrial Mortality

Kudos to Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester who introduced a new bill to ban the use of asbestos in the United States last week. Tester joins eight other senators on the measure, which was simultaneously introduced in the House and co-sponsored by 21 representatives. Montana’s tragic history with asbestos-caused death and injury in the Libby and Troy area from the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine is a shameful blot on Montana’s past. But in truth, dying to make a living in the U.S. goes far beyond asbestos and continues to kill and maim innocent citizens every day.

The grim story of the W.R. Grace caused deaths and illnesses began when the company took over the Zonolite mining operations in 1963 to produce an estimated 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite from the Libby mine. Enormous amounts of asbestos-laden dust blanketed the workers, homes, yards, forests and general environment in the area while the vermiculite was used on everything from gardens to the local schools’ running tracks.

The problem, which was well-known before Grace shuttered the operations in 1990, is that the vermiculite ore contained high concentrations of deadly tremolite asbestos fibers that penetrate the lungs to sicken and eventually kill those unfortunate enough to have inhaled them. Even worse, it wasn’t just the employees at the mine and mill, it was their families to whom they brought home their asbestos-coated work clothes.

The true shame of Libby’s deadly disaster is that the state was being sued by those suffering asbestosis in the late 80s, which coincides with the time Marc Racicot, who was raised in Libby, was the state’s attorney general. As the state’s top law enforcement official, Racicot had to know about the sickness and deaths detailed in the lawsuits. But the mine continued to operate until 1990 and wasn’t a focus of Racicot’s attention when he became governor in 1993.

Nope, it wasn’t until 1999, after a blistering series of articles in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer revealed the enormity of Grace’s crimes that the EPA listed the area as a Superfund site — and continues to work on “clean up” 20 years later. As reported by Montana Standard editor David McCumber, health screenings have found “more than a thousand residents with signs of asbestos-related lung disorders, and more area residents are being diagnosed with the deadly disease every week.”

The latest estimates are that a stunning “39,000 Americans die from asbestos-related disease each and every year” according to Dr. Richard Lemen, the deputy director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

In the meantime, Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines’ claims “his No. 1 priority is the safety of all Montanans, preventing tragedies like Libby and Troy from happening in the first place.” So dedicated is Daines that his office reports he is still reading the bill’s text and considering his next steps. Duh!

The more truthful explanation is that Daines is afraid of angering President Trump, who proudly lauds his deadly and despicable record of deregulating toxic-emitting industries and claims asbestos is “perfectly safe when properly applied.”

Tens of thousands of Americans continue to die from industrial poisons annually. Golden Sunlight’s mine poisoned groundwater with cyanide. Colstrip polluted domestic wells with arsenic. Anaconda’s smelter workers breathed toxins from the stack daily. The list goes on and on.

Dying to make a living is, simply put, a crime against humanity. It’s time for Daines to represent his constituents and move aggressively to protect the health of workers and their families — not the profit margins of deadly polluting industries.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.