Clearing the AirBy Daniel Berger
Poisoned by its livelihood, Libby, Montana has shown the nation how to fight back.
Earlier this summer at a community meeting in Libby, Montana, an audience member asked the two UM medical researchers presenting their work if they would please tell Senator Max Baucus what they knew about asbestos-related diseases. Baucus needs to understand exactly how unique the asbestos problem in Libby is, the member reasoned, so he can help draft legislation that will ensure sick residents receive adequate compensation.
This kind of community discussion—one that comfortably slips back and forth between congressional politics and biomedical research—is characteristic of small towns like Libby that have fallen prey to the worst type of corporate abuse, the kind that sickens a whole community.
By now, the tale of Libby is well known: A nearby vermiculite mine operated first by the Zonolite Company and then by W.R. Grace and Company for nearly seventy years poisoned not only employees of the mine and the processing plants, but hundreds of people in and around town. The vermiculite was interlaced with an unusually dangerous form of asbestos, called tremolite, which flaked off and floated through the air like pollen, covering trees, sidewalks, windowsills—everything that had a surface. Miners and mill workers, who at one point had some of the best paying jobs in town, brought it into their homes on their clothes, shoes, and hair. Kids wrote their names in it on car windows. For years, if you lived, worked in, or even visited Libby, you inhaled an unknown amount of these fibers, which very often can cause cancer or a variety of other lung, heart, and stomach diseases.
W.R. Grace closed the mine in 1990, but by the mid ’90s, more than 200 former mill workers had filed lawsuits in state district court against the company. W.R. Grace settled these cases out of court and quietly paid off the plaintiffs, handing each a gag order along with a hastily written and very minimal check. Since no one was allowed to talk, the lawsuits remained hidden in the roll books; no class action suit arose and none of the cases were transferred out of the county.
In fall 1999, UM Journalism Professor Dennis Swibold was tipped off to the lawsuits. He handed the story to three graduate students who immediately began scanning the county logs. They found the long list of suits against W.R. Grace, visited with doctors who had treated the sick, and met state officials who claimed to know very little about any of it.
According to one of the former students, Ericka Schenck Smith, now a reporter for the Missoulian, as they investigated, they remained one step behind a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who also had received a tip. The P-I reporter was more experienced and organized, she says, and they knew he was going to scoop them. But then a short article on the lawsuits appeared in another nearby paper, the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake. A few days later, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its exposé on Libby, adding new stories daily. And in another few days, the students’ work appeared in the Missoulian. Within a couple of weeks, the Libby story was picked up nationwide.
When the story broke, the Environmental Protection Agency dispatched emergency crews to test the air and ground in Libby and to begin cleanups. The agency quickly blew its budget as the depth of the problem became apparent. Not only were an untold number of residents sick, but nearly every building, along with the ball fields, playgrounds, and vacant lots, was contaminated with high levels of the asbestos. Still, it took two years and much wrangling with Governor Judy Martz to have the town designated a Superfund site.
Bob Dedrick is seventy-three, has a medium build, and a thick head of steel-wool hair. He is one of roughly 1,200 people in or near Libby with an asbestos-related disease. Dedrick and his wife Carrie, who also has asbestosis and can hardly talk at times, lived a block away from one of W.R. Grace’s processing plants for years. Neither one ever worked at the mine or at any of the plants. In 1998, Dedrick’s cousin, who also lived in town, died at age fifty-two from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Others in town had been sick, too, with what the locals called “Libby lung.”
In summer 1999, just a few months before the story broke nationally, Dedrick and a handful of residents started looking for help, hoping someone would listen. They created an alliance, developed a set of goals, and began a long and arduous fight against W.R. Grace. Internal documents show that the company knew about the asbestos risks for years but had chosen not to take them seriously. It is also clear in hindsight that the company relied on its stronghold within the community to hide its demons.
Many of the folks from Dedrick’s loose-knit alliance were asked by the EPA to join the agency’s Community Advisory Group (CAG). CAG was instrumental in getting the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR) to screen all area residents for asbestos-related lung problems. (According to the agency’s medical report, nearly 18 percent of those screened, or more than 1,000 people, had some lung damage due to asbestos exposure.) CAG members are given the EPA’s most current information and have been involved in the EPA’s decision-making processes. It was at a CAG meeting that the concerned audience member pleaded with the two UM researchers, Pharmaceutical Sciences Professor Andrij Holian and Pharmaceutical Sciences Assistant Professor Jean Pfau, to contact the senator.
Ever since the three enterprising UM journalism students set out to investigate what was happening in Libby, UM staff, students, and faculty have taken a leadership role in providing necessary social services along with research and education for all those affected or interested in the plight of Libby’s residents. The work ranges from independent research by students and faculty in the environmental studies and communications programs to multi million-dollar biomedical, sociological, and psychological research in other departments.
“We’re the primary research center in the country for asbestos-related diseases,” says Holian, referring to UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), of which he is the director. “We have a number of very committed investigators here that are pooling efforts so we can better understand these chronic lung diseases.”
Holian’s research hypothesizes that asbestosis-related diseases are mostly immunological and his work is trying to determine how chronic lung diseases are started and how they propagate. Elizabeth Putnam, another of four CEHS researchers focused on Libby, is studying toxicogenomics, or “how the genetic makeup of an organism determines how it responds to a toxic exposure.” An associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, Putnam is studying the variation in people’s reactions to asbestos based on their genetic makeup and is trying to determine if anything in our genetic code makes us more susceptible to environmental exposures, such as asbestos.
Holian and Putnam were instrumental in the New Directions and Needs in Asbestos Research conference hosted by CEHS and held at UM in June 2002. The conference brought together leading experts on asbestos-related illnesses to discuss new avenues of research that would most benefit exposed populations such as, but not limited to, the one in Libby.
Plants that processed Libby vermiculite were located around the country and employed thousands of people, potentially exposing thousands more who lived in close proximity. The sickness may yet explode in places like Minneapolis, Minnesota, Trenton, New Jersey, Dallas, Texas, and Newark, California, all of which had plants that operated for twenty-five years or more. In New York City, hundreds of thousands of pounds of asbestos-laced vermiculite from Libby were encased in the walls of the World Trade Center.
The challenge to doctors and health care officials is that asbestos can remain embedded in the body for as long as forty years before signs of sickness appear. That’s because tremolite fibers are long and skinny, like needles, and slowly bore through lung tissue. The fibers also have been known to make their way into the stomach, where they work through the stomach lining and cause another set of debilitating problems.
The most common asbestos-related disease is asbestosis, which is what happens when the fibers that bore into the outer lining of the lungs scrape and scar. That outer lining, which once expanded with inhalation like a balloon, now resembles a thick, leathery orange peel, unable to stretch. Often the lungs themselves are fine; they just don’t have the room to pull in air. Without supplemental oxygen, asbestosis victims can suffocate.
Mesothelioma is one of the more debilitating and painful of the asbestos-related diseases. With mesothelioma, the cells that make up the membrane lining the chest and abdominal cavity become abnormal and divide uncontrollably and continuously, growing into a tumor than can cover the entire abdominal area.
Nationwide, cases of mesothelioma have risen dramatically in recent years; asbestosis has begun to appear in places like Minneapolis.
“Doctors aren’t going to think of asbestos-related diseases unless they are made aware of them,” Holian says. Which is one reason why the research at UM is so important.
Additionally, asbestos companies are now clamoring for Congress to pass compensation legislation that explicitly details who is eligible for benefits and who is not.
Medically speaking, asbestos-related diseases in Libby are different: the asbestos fibers from Libby are sharper and more deadly than those found many other places, the time between exposure and when symptoms can arise is longer, the illness is more widespread in the community, and sickness is more likely to lead to death.
“We need to define the disease,” says Putnam, “and get it accepted so that victims don’t become ineligible for funding or benefits through legislation.” Libby’s particular brand of disease, with its long latency period and uniquely shaped fibers, could make it easy for industry-friendly lawmakers to craft legislation that doesn’t include Libby victims.
The National Rural Bioethics Project, working through UM's psychology department, is helping Libby’s asbestos victims not only cope, but gain some control over their lives. Dixie McLaughlin is the project manager for the Libby program. She coordinates a $1 million grant that provides funding for research on ethical and social issues of asbestos-related health problems. The grant also provides resources to translate scientific findings and legal and legislative issues into accessible and objective language for the residents of Libby by way of an extensive Web site. The five-year grant, awarded in September 2002, was fully funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Services.
“From surveys we did, we found that the Internet is something people in Libby felt comfortable using,” says McLaughlin. The site includes information about asbestos, asbestosis, and other related illnesses, links to all of ASTDR’s reports and to legislative issues concerning asbestos-related claims around the country, and an original educational curriculum designed for students in Libby.
Libby kids, McLaughlin says, are sick of being tested and prodded and questioned and cross-examined. One of the class modules developed, she added, teaches kids how to make a documentary film. “The idea,” says McLaughlin, “is to empower students—to have them behind the camera, have them ask the questions—instead of always putting them under the microscope.”
Today, Libby is safe. The ball fields, schools, hospitals, offices, stores, and nearly 300 houses have been cleaned. The mill is closed off and the processing plants all have been razed and cleared, though there is still plenty of cleaning left to do. Libby’s ambient air count for asbestos fibers, which was once many times higher than any safe level, is lower here than in many U.S. towns. And for the most part, the townsfolk have been pleased with the EPA’s efforts. But many of those left sick can’t afford proper care.
According to Laura Sedler, more than 50 percent of those affected are either not insured or don’t have enough insurance. Sedler is one of two social workers with St. John’s Hospital in Libby who provides social services to affected residents and family members. She says that finding the money to fund healthcare is the biggest (but by no means the only) challenge facing victims.
The median family income in Lincoln County is $29,615 and unemployment is 17.2 percent. And that was before 300 workers were laid off when the Stimson lumber mill closed its Libby operation in January 2003. By many estimates, it costs a Libby asbestos victim half a million dollars to die, which most of them can’t afford.
W.R. Grace has instituted a voluntary medical plan, meaning company leaders—not government officials or insurance agents—decide who is and isn’t eligible, and the company can pull the plug on the whole thing at any time.
“They have no one overseeing them,” says social worker Tanis Lincoln, Sedler’s partner at the hospital. “They can change your plan overnight and not even tell you.” The likelihood of that happening has increased dramatically since the company filed for bankruptcy last year, removing itself from any financial or other obligations to the victims or to the town.
In meetings with the CAG, Dedrick has voiced this very concern. “We know where the asbestos came from, what it does, and who done it. But we (the CAG) have never gotten any money from Grace for the victims.” Sick residents, many of whom don’t have adequate health insurance coverage, have nowhere to turn for help other than to state and federal officials. Without research and education, litigation and legislation likely won’t help.
One day last spring, snow glistened atop the green peaks of the Cabinet Mountains west of Libby. The air smelled pure and sweet as Dedrick weeded his vegetable garden. Dedrick says he and his wife have decent health care coverage, but he’s concerned about his friends and neighbors who don’t. He doesn’t want to see the attention once given to his town fade, as hard as that may be to avoid.
With the departure, for the moment, of extraction industries, residents can now pursue a better, healthier future. The old high school gym has undergone a $2 million renovation and is now a fully equipped community arts center. The real estate market is rebounding as retirees—looking for a pretty, quiet town—discover Libby. Enrollment at local community colleges is up, although so is the average age of students.
“We’re losing our younger families, and that changes the whole feel of the community,” says Mayor Anthony Berget. “This part of the world is becoming the wealthy man’s playground.”
Libby residents aren’t necessarily willing to stand by and let their town turn into a retirement or resort community. They are looking for other ways to spur the economy. Many are pushing for a medical research center in Libby. Dedrick believes that Libby is the best
place for a research center because that is where the problem is. He
sees a need to coordinate data that already has been collected.
“The CARD (Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases) has data, so do the docs, and so does the CHC—the Community Health Center. We need it all in one place, in the same format, so we can learn something from it. We need that clinic here.” Getting some sort of clinic, Dedrick says, will keep money and attention focused on the town, which could help some of his friends and neighbors.
The University, on the other hand, is equipped with $2 million in facilities, plus trained faculty. It’s growing as a regional center for biomedical research and is poised for this kind of a research project. What will likely happen, Professor Holian says, is that clinical research will be conducted in Libby, while the regular research takes place at the University.
No doubt research facilities will increase and improve in both Libby and Missoula; innovation and research tend to follow tragedy. Situations like what happened in Libby often have been the impetus for major medical discoveries.
The good-natured, hard-working, creative, and charming people of Libby endure. Their town is growing, not shrinking, and becoming more educated, affluent, and culturally rich. But when the next corporation comes driving into the Kootenai Valley looking for a place to set up shop, you can bet that the residents of Libby won’t just roll over like submissive puppies. That’s not going to happen again, at least not in Libby.
Daniel Berger, M.S. ’02, wrote his master’s thesis on the mystery and science of Glacial Lake Missoula. He currently works as a freelance writer in Missoula.