by three UM journalism graduate students last fall helped break one of the most important
environmental pollution stories in Montanas history.
Two of the students, Shannon
Dininny and Ericka Schenck Smith, knew they were onto something big after visiting the
Lincoln County Courthouse in Libby for the first time last semester. When they asked to
see court records of lawsuits relating to asbestos, they were led to an area where the
documents filled an entire room. And the name W.R. Grace and Co. cropped up
repeatedly in a handwritten case log in the District Court clerks office.
Shuffling through the thick file folders and boxes of legal documents, they realized
their journalism class project was developing into a huge story one that had been
inexplicably missed by the mainstream media.
Grace operated an asbestos-producing vermiculite mine and mill near Libby until 1990.
Jobs at the mine, located at Zonolite Mountain, paid decent wages and had kept many folks
in the area fed and clothed since 1924. But, according to recent published reports, it
also had left Libby with a heartrending legacy: At least 190 people have died from
asbestos-related illnesses, and the death toll and number of lawsuits are rising.
The fact that this story had been there, ignored for all these years, amazed
me, Dininny said. It just got missed. People at the courthouse thought it was
great that someone was finally doing a story.
Dininny, Smith and fellow graduate student Ben Shors wrote a series of stories about
the asbestos problems in Libby for their 1999 fall semester Community Journalism class.
After months of research and in-depth reporting, they saw their work published in the
Missoulian Nov. 20-24 under the heading Fall From Grace: The Libby Asbestos
Their series helped make Montana and the nation aware of the terrible problems in
Libby, and fallout from the stories legal, political and otherwise