CHAPTER 1: SERPENT IN THE ROCK
Tucked into a wild, verdant valley in the northwestern part of Montana, surrounded by a deep wilderness that extends well beyond the Canadian border ninety miles to the north, lies the town of Libby. John Steinbeck once called Montana "A Love Affair," and so it is with Libby. Those who love the solitude, natural beauty, and physical independence that the town offers are compelled to live here, even though jobs often are scarce.
The twelve thousand or so folks who live around Libby are friendly, open, and trusting, for the most part. They are aware of their backwater status and are quick to make self-deprecating jokes about it. But, the truth is, they love Libby and wouldn't live anywhere else.
The bucolic, pine-rimmed valley, the jade-colored Kootenai River, and the snowcapped Cabinet Mountains that arc some seven thousand feet above the town combine to make Libby an idyllic village of postcard views. Life is simple and quiet here. Everyone knows one another. The crime rate is low. Bar fights and moose-poaching reports take up most of the police ledger, and it has been that way for more than a hundred years.
That's why the last thing anyone expected was that Libby would suddenly become Ground Zero for the most lethal environmental poisoning in U.S. history. No one could have predicted that this small American town was about to become the center of a medical, legal, and political storm over asbestos that would make headlines around the world. And no one could have imagined that hundreds and perhaps thousands of people would ultimately die in Libby from tiny fibers no one could see. A snake had entered Paradise, and nobody saw it coming.
Asbestos is the general term for a number of naturally occurring fibrous forms of several mineral silicates. These grow in chainlike crystal structures of billions of microscopic fibers that are so light they can float in the air for hours or even days. The fibers are so pliable they can be woven into cloth.
Because it is literally a rock, asbestos is waterproof, fireproof, and corrosion-proof. Manufacturers quickly found that this "magic mineral" had hundreds of applications in buildings, homes, appliances, automobiles, and in a variety of common products from ironing board pads and cigarette filters to hair dryers and children's clothing.
Besides its insulating and fireproofing properties, asbestos has the tensile strength of piano wire, making it perfect for use as a binding agent in thousands of building products such as cement, tile, mastics, and vinyl wall and floor coverings. More than thirty-three million tons of it have been incorporated in buildings, vehicles, and products in the United States, greatly boosting the fortunes of dozens of great American companies such as Johns Manville, Raybestos-Manhattan, Owens Corning, and W. R. Grace. Asbestos was indeed a "miracle mineral" when it came to profit margins.
The problem with asbestos is the fibers. They break off at the slightest provocation. Needle-sharp and shaped like spears, they can be inhaled by the thousands with each breath. Some physicians believe even one of the fibers, lodged in the wrong place, can eventually kill a person. While many of the fibers find their way safely out of the body, others inevitably embed themselves in soft tissue and cannot be removed. They most often lodge in the lungs and lining of the abdomen but have been found in nearly every major organ of the human body, including the brain and the heart.
Asbestos exposure is related to increased levels of several types of cancer, especially of the lungs and stomach. Asbestos is the sole cause of mesothelioma (mees-o-thee-lee-oma), a virulent and fatal cancer that doctors say is more physically painful and psychologically devastating than AIDS. It also causes asbestosis, a serious, progressive, and potentially fatal disease that eventually kills its victims by cutting off their oxygen supply. Asbestosis can lie dormant and then suddenly "flower," causing death in a relatively short time; its victims are said to have ticking time bombs inside their chests.
"Asbestos-related diseases can cause pain, shortness of breath, inability to eat, and heart problems," said Dr. Harvey Pass, head of thoracic oncology at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit. "If you can't eat or breathe and your heart doesn't work very well and you're having pain during this, you tend to wither away and suffer tremendously -- that's pretty awful. Yet, as aware as our society is about most diseases, these still go unnoticed."
The failure of other organs due to the stress of diminished oxygen, and the overall lack of understanding in America of asbestos-related diseases, are reasons experts feel the number of asbestos victims has been vastly underestimated. "We'll never know how many people whose death certificates indicate the cause of death to be heart attacks, lung disease, kidney failure, or some other problem, who actually died of asbestos-related diseases," said Dr. Aubrey Miller, an asbestos expert with the U.S. Public Health Service. "But the number has to be very high."
In northwestern Montana, that number has been growing steadily for decades. The poison that crept so quietly into Libby has been at work for generations, much as it has been throughout the rest of America. It would have continued to reap its terrible harvest in secret -- and the serious dangers posed by asbestos swept under the rug completely -- if it hadn't been for a few troublemakers in Libby who wouldn't shut up.
Leaning back in an easy chair in his small apartment overlooking Libby's Little League ballpark, Bob Wilkins doesn't look much like a troublemaker. His eyes are still vibrant and full of fire, but his skin is tight and has taken on a gray pallor. A prideful, handsome man, Wilkins is a former chief of police who once kept the peace in the boisterous, Wild West town of Wolf Point, Montana. It was a physical job, dealing with drunks and rowdies and cowboys whooping it up on weekends. You have a feeling he was up to the task. He still has the firm jawline and physical bearing of a man who could take care of himself in a scrap. He used to keep in shape hiking the mountains with his children and running five miles a day. He'll tell you that with obvious pride. Today, he has trouble walking down the single flight of stairs to his car. Asbestosis has eaten away 70 percent of his lungs.
"I first came to Libby in 1966," he said, his words interrupted by a constant cough. "The job I was promised at the mine paid more than I was making in Wolf Point, and I loved the area. It was an open pit mine so we would be working outside. It sounded good to me." Wilkins's wife, Louise, and their five children were excited and relieved by the move. Louise felt that working for a big corporation like W. R. Grace, which owned the mine, was a much safer job than keeping the peace in Wolf Point.
Wilkins worked at the screening plant that perched on the banks of the Kootenai (Coot-nee) River. The ore was trucked down from the mountain, and once it was screened, sized, and graded, Wilkins was in charge of loading it into the Burlington Northern railcars and sending it to destinations around the world. As he worked, bald eagles and osprey wheeled above and fished in the Kootenai, and bighorn sheep and elk roamed the forests and cliffs around him. "I thought I had the best job on earth," he said.
Today, he knows differently. Interlaced with the ore was a mineral called tremolite, one of the most lethal forms of asbestos. Asbestos fibers were released into the atmosphere by the millions in nearly every step of the mining process. The screening plant was dusty all the time. Wilkins was covered with it nearly every day. The company kept the dangers of the tremolite secret from the miners and the town until hundreds of people in Libby had died and more than fourteen hundred others were diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.
Wilkins's favorite T-shirt, the one he wears around Libby on the good days when he can get out, reads: LOCAL 361 GAVE ME A WATCH, W. R. GRACE GAVE ME ASBESTOS.
The sentiments do not amuse those who represent W. R. Grace, the multibillion-dollar chemical and oil conglomerate based in Columbia, Maryland.
"The Grace people give me hell about it -- they say I'm stirring up trouble," Wilkins said. "But I told them, after all the pain you've caused this town, you're lucky that's all I'm doing."
As Wilkins talked, his eyes were constantly moving. They seemed alternately bewildered, angry, and questioning. "See that over there," Wilkins said, pointing to an ugly, rusting, corrugated iron building rising above the baseball dugout. "We called it the popping plant. It was part of the mine operation. That's where they took the ore to heat it. There used to be four Little League baseball diamonds surrounding it. Dust would be flying out of the popping plant all the time, covering those ball fields. The guys who ran the mine told us not to worry, that it was just a nuisance dust."
Wilkins closed his eyes and for a moment it seemed as though he had gone to sleep. When he opened them again, it was apparent he was crying. "Had we known, none of us would have ever worked there," he said softly. "We didn't know the dust was killing all those women and children."
Les Skramstad remembers the day in 1959 when he was told to bring one of the company pickup trucks to one of the high levels of the huge, bulldozed, terraced area of the mine. "We backed the truck up to a huge pile of stuff and loaded it with our hands," Skramstad said. "It was pure asbestos. They were experimenting with it. We had to bring it down to the plant and clean it. I remember the boss -- this was before W. R. Grace bought the mine in 1963 -- came over to us and said, 'We have so much asbestos up here we have to find a market for it. If we do, we'll be in business forever. There ain't no limit to this stuff. It's all over this mountain.'"
Skramstad, a trim, rugged-looking man who looks like he just walked out of central casting for a cowboy movie, is sitting in a Libby restaurant with his wife, Norita. They are both Libby troublemakers. They got that way after they and three of their five children were diagnosed with asbestos-caused diseases.
"I only worked at that mine for two and a half years," Skramstad said. "But they had us down on our hands and knees sorting through the asbestos. We built a screen-and-shaker so we could separate out the rocks. They wanted the asbestos to be pure. They were trying to see if they could manufacture a product out of it. All the material was wet because there were natural springs all over the mountain. We had to dry it with electric heaters. By the time we were done, we'd go home covered with asbestos dust. The kids would hug me and get it all over themselves. Norita would wash my clothes and she'd get contaminated. We had no idea it was lethal. No one at the mine ever said a word."
Skramstad quit his job at the mine in 1961, but by then it was too late. "Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I was doing anything to hurt my family," he said, his voice suddenly breaking. "That's what makes me the maddest. They gave me a job that had fatal consequences and knowingly let me take that death home to my wife and kids. You tell me, what kind of people could do that?"
At the W. R. Grace headquarters in 1963, the opportunity to buy the Libby mine that yielded the strange and rare ore called vermiculite was too good to pass up. J. Peter Grace, the company's young, ambitious president and CEO, was convinced that purchasing the mine would yield a new product that could penetrate nearly unlimited untapped markets.
Vermiculite, which in its raw form is a shiny, blackish rock with the layered consistency of shale, has one amazing characteristic: When heated, the water trapped inside its layers turns to steam and "pops" the vermiculite, much like a kernel of popcorn. The vermiculite suddenly expands to about seventeen times its original size, turns a gold color, and gains an airy consistency. In its expanded form, vermiculite is used in insulation, animal feed, potting soil, gypsum plaster, fertilizer, brake pads, fireproof safes, paints, fireplaces, and a host of other products.
The vermiculite deposit, which sits on the top of a low mountain about six miles north of Libby, is one of the largest ever found in the world. It covers more than twelve hundred acres and extends from the surface to dozens of feet underground. Mining and processing the ore was a relatively simple but extremely dusty process.
For W. R. Grace, one of the world's largest manufacturers of specialty chemicals, the purchase of the mine proved to be a highly profitable move. With help of a national advertising campaign that starred comedian Danny Kaye and others, the demand for vermiculite skyrocketed. Orders came from all over the United States, Japan, France, England, Canada, and several other countries. Before long, Grace was processing thousands of tons per day.
There was only one problem. Since 1940, Montana state health officials had been concerned about the dust emissions at the mine. In 1962, a year before W. R. Grace bought the mine, the state determined that the dust contained high levels of tremolite asbestos that was dangerous to human health.
By 1963, however, Peter Grace was emerging as one of the most powerful and well-connected corporate figures in America. A serious and determined man, Grace had taken over the helm of W. R. Grace in 1945, when he was only thirty-two years old. The company was founded in 1854 by his grandfather, William Russell Grace, who also initiated the family's entrée into the political world when he served two terms as the mayor of New York City. As mayor, he accepted the Statue of Liberty from the French in 1885. He also built a steamship line that created service from New York to South America, where the company had several business operations. William Grace was a tough, swashbuckling corporate giant of the ilk of John Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan.
Grandson Peter was born to power, wealth, and privilege. Like his grandfather, he was a driven man. Not only did he pursue his dream of expanding the Grace corporate empire, he was extremely active in politics and governmental operations at a high level. Polished, urbane, and extremely conservative, he enjoyed close relationships with presidents, popes, CIA directors, and a multitude of other highly placed politicians. He served as the head of the Commerce Department Committee on the Alliance for Progress under President John Kennedy and would play a high-profile role in the Reagan administration. He also maintained a close relationship with the Bush family, which would ultimately yield two American presidents.
By 1963, Peter Grace had already expanded the company's operations to New Zealand, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and Australia. He was confident that he could deal with a few backwoods Montana health officials.
Besides Wilkins and Skramstad, people like Bob Dedrick, who grew up in a house next to the popping plant, and Jim Racicot, the cousin of a former Montana governor, helped bring the story to the front pages. Dedrick, a gentle man who for forty straight years took out a moose hunting permit -- but who could never talk himself into shooting one -- took dead aim at the W. R. Grace company after his cousin died of mesothelioma and his uncle of asbestosis. Dedrick, his wife, and his brother have since been diagnosed with asbestos-caused diseases.
Racicot, a fun-loving, amiable man who often answers his phone "GOOD MORNING, MONNNNTANA!" has, along with his twin brother, younger brother, and sister, been diagnosed with asbestosis. Although Racicot's father and stepfather also died of the poison dust from the mine, he felt his cousin, Marc Racicot, nominated by George W. Bush and elected in January 2002 to head the Republican National Committee, did not do enough to help the people of Libby during his term as governor of Montana during the 1990s. "It has caused a bit of a rift in the family," Racicot said.
Both Dedrick and Jim Racicot played key roles in exposing the Libby situation, as did a blond, boisterous, intelligent, and angry grandmother of eleven named Gayla Benefield. Benefield, perhaps the most unlikely troublemaker of all, was for most of her life content to take care of her family and their log home along a beautiful bend of the Kootenai River. Being in the public spotlight had always made her uncomfortable. That was before she lost her mother and father to the mine dust, and before she, her husband, one of her daughters, and thirty-four other members of her extended family were diagnosed with potentially fatal lung abnormalities.
"Troublemaker?" repeated Benefield. "Oh yes, I plan to make as much trouble as I can for W. R. Grace before I die."
Motivated by what she calls a case of "corporate murder," Benefield has emerged as a tough-talking media magnet who has told her story to national magazines and television news stations throughout the country. She can still remember the day, September 17, 1954, on her eleventh birthday, when her father, Perley Vatland, came to her with wonderful news. Perley had just been offered a job at the vermiculite mine. It was huge news because Perley was unemployed, and jobs at the mine were hard to get. Everyone in town wanted to work there. The jobs paid well, and besides, the company offered good health benefits.
At the time the job seemed to be a dream come true to Perley and his wife, Margaret. Norwegian immigrants, they had moved to Libby in 1946 after giving up on a hardscrabble farm in North Dakota. Perley and Margaret came to Montana in search of a better life for their children.
"My dad gave me a hug that day and told me it was my birthday present," Gayla said with a small laugh. "It always seemed special to me. Not too many kids get a job for their birthday."
An ecstatic Perley told the family, "This is the job of a lifetime."
All Gayla knew was that the entire family was happy. "It was like, 'Dad's got a job, now everything is going to be all right,'" she said.
As the new man at the mine, Perley's first job was working as a sweeper in the dry mill. Each day after work he arrived home covered in a thick white dust. Sometimes Margaret would brush him off with a broom outside in the yard. Otherwise, Gayla remembered, he would walk directly into the house and get his cup of coffee that Margaret always had ready for him. Margaret washed his dusty clothes twice a week.
The dust at the mine was ubiquitous, but the men tolerated it with a shrug. "No worse than farm dust," they were told. It seemed a small price to pay for a steady job in Libby that offered a twenty-year retirement pension.
Ten years later, the price had escalated. Perley had come down with a series of lung ailments he didn't seem to be able to shake. Once robust and able to work long hours, his health broke down, and he suffered greatly over the next decade. He was stunned that the managers at W. R. Grace didn't seem to care. "He felt they turned their backs on him after he had worked so hard for them," Gayla said.
Perley died five days before he would have made his twenty-year pension. His last months were filled with suffering. He was unable to breathe much of the time, and his chest felt like it was on fire. After he died, the company declined to pay his full pension to the family. No one from W. R. Grace called the family with condolences or sent flowers or even a card.
"Mom received thirty-seven dollars a month from the company," Gayla said. "That's what Dad's life was worth."
Gayla's mother was fifty-four years old when she lost her husband. She had never worked outside the home, but she learned to sell Avon products and managed to just make ends meet. But in 1978, Margaret, too, began to feel sick. Her strength slowly diminished, as did her lung capacity. The doctors diagnosed pneumonia and other respiratory diseases, but in 1986 she was finally diagnosed with asbestosis. Her disease was slow acting but relentless. After spending her final two years in constant pain and agony, Margaret died in 1996. She died knowing it was the dust on Perley's clothes that had killed her. A happy, gentle woman for most of her life, she spent her last days bitter and angry.
Just before her death, Margaret had asked Gayla to move to her bedside. "Gayla, I want you to promise me one thing," her mother whispered in a rasping voice. "I want you to promise me you will get them -- you'll get the bastards who did this to me."
Gayla took only a moment to answer. "I will," she said. "Oh, I will."
Copyright © 2003 by Michael Bowker