People of Libby, Montana, Await Justice

The plight of the people of Libby, Montana, was poignantly documented in a series of articles by reporters Andrew Schneider and Lise Oleson, which appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in late 1999 and 2000. This series was followed up by the publication of Deadly Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America by investigative journalist Michael Bowker. Together, these pieces brought national attention to the issue of asbestos poisoning. Meanwhile, nearly seven years later, the people of Libby are still waiting for justice. W.R. Grace Inc. is the corporation that owned most of the asbestos operations in and around this small mountain town. Federal prosecutors who have been working on the case allege that the company’s management concealed information on the health hazards of asbestos from its workers since the early 1970s. Unfortunately, in order for the trial to proceed, several lower court rulings must first be reversed. In 2006, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy prevented documents from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on air quality tests and medical records on 7,300 Libby residents from being entered into evidence. Judge Molloy also barred the use of witness testimony by the prosecution. These rulings, according to Molloy, were based on concerns as to whether the criminal actions on the part of the W.R. Grace Corporation had “occurred beyond the statute of limitations.” Molloy also agreed with the corporation’s claim that the federal government had “misidentified the specific type of asbestos in the company’s vermiculite.”

Vermiculite is a non-toxic substance that was contaminated with asbestos fibers. Dr. Brad Black, who directs the Center for Asbestos Related Diseases in Libby, considers that information irrelevant, saying, “It doesn’t matter what they call it…cemeteries and hospitals throughout the Northwest are filled with people fallen by the asbestos from Grace’s vermiculite.” On the other hand, Christopher Landau, counsel for the defense, insists that the actions of the corporations and its employees were completely legal. The charges against seven of the corporation’s senior management, made in 2005, include criminal conspiracy and knowing endangerment. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for Libby residents and others connected with the case. In an ironic twist, the W.R. Grace corporation’s former general mine manager, Alan Stringer, who was one of the seven named defendants, died of lung cancer in February of this year. Shortly before that, prosecution witness Lee Skramstad died of asbestos-related lung cancer as well. Over 1,300 other Libby residents show signs of asbestos disease, and more are diagnosed every week. A decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is due later this month.