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2001 Cascadia Times

Scarred Paradise: A Montana Tragedy

Who will help the dying people of Libby?

by Jane Fritz


Gayla Benefield still remembers the nightmares she had of endless lines of lifeless, gray-faced men with fear in their eyes. It was 1982, and she was caring for her sick mother, Margaret Vatland, who for years had been in and out of the hospital with what doctors called pneumonia. The dreams eventually led Benefield to doubt their diagnoses and question them: "Is it the dust that killed Dad?"

In November, 1999 a Seattle newspaper alleged that nearly 200 people had died and several hundred more were afflicted with asbestos-related diseases in the small, mountain town of Libby, Montana (population 2,700, although the greater area holds around 13,000). The source of the problems is a defunct vermiculite mine owned by W. R. Grace & Co. It is now known that millions of pounds of raw ore and expanded vermiculite that were shipped to hundreds of places across the country are contaminated with toxic, tremolite asbestos.

While community groups and state and county governments work together to provide adequate health care for so many sick people, and the Environmental Protection Agency's emergency response crews grapple with clean-up, Libby residents are looking for some hope in an otherwise tragic story. Lately, many sick Libby residents have come forth to tell their stories and share how dust from the mine which they didn't know was dangerous is slowly killing them and their families.

Benefield's father, Perley Vatland, had worked at the W. R. Grace & Company vermiculite mine in Libby until he fell ill with asbestosis, a fatal lung disease resulting from asbestos exposure. His was the first case of the disease in Libby to be settled under Workman's Compensation. The company paid him $30,000. He died in 1974 at the age of 62, just five days shy of what would have been 20 years of employment at the strip mine on Zonolite Mountain.

As her mother's health worsened, Gayla Benefield's persistent questioning finally got the answer she dreaded, but had suspected. Margaret Vatland was also diagnosed with asbestosis, the first wife of a miner in Libby to get the disease, Benefield says, from the tremolite-laced dust brought home from work on her dad's clothing.

"Back then, we didn't know much about the disease or what was causing it," she says. "We still didn't know how many other people here had died or how many were sick."

Tremolite asbestos is a very potent form of the asbestos mineral that intruded the vermiculite. Its fibers are microscopic and when inhaled become lodged in the lungs, causing scarring of the lining or pleura. Eventually asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothilioma, an extremely rare cancer of the chest and abdominal linings, can develop.

With both her parents falling victim to a disease caused by the same toxin, Benefield, the outspoken mother of five and a grandmother, worried about the health of the rest of her family, and others in her community. She decided to take action, launching into an Erin Brockovich-like investigation of W. R. Grace and its Libby vermiculite operation.

Libby has always been a company town. It's rural, natural resource-based economy was built upon the backs of generations of men who wrestled a living from the surrounding heavily timbered and mineral-rich Cabinet Mountains. Benefield knew that by her doing extensive research into company, agency, and court documents, it would fly in the face of the community's trust in industry and companies like W. R. Grace.

"After all," she says, "the company was a big benefactor in the community." Anything that the community wanted, the company provided, she says. "People don't understand that the mine only employed around 200 people. Our lumber industry employed at least 1200 people. But if any community organization needed anything, W.R. Grace was always the one to jump to the forefront." The company also had influence politically. Earl Lovick, a local Grace administrator, served on the school board, hospital board, and helped run the campaign for Republican Bill Crismore, a state senator.

But by the time her mother died in 1996, Benefield's investigation revealed shocking details: W.R. Grace knew there was an asbestos problem when they purchased the lucrative 40-year-old mine from the Zonolite Company in 1963. Even so, Grace consistently had failed to disclose to workers the health risks from working at the Libby site, especially in 1969, when an in-house medical study showed 92 percent of its long-term workers were suffering from respiratory illness.

A 1980 memo discussed company options on a proposal from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), to study tremolite at the Libby operation. Benefield says the company favored a pre-emptive epidemiological study, delay tactics and political pressure to sidetrack the federal agency and suppress health data to protect economic interests.

Routine air quality inspections of the mine by the state of Montana were often done when it was either raining or the mill wasn't operating.

In 1982, the company had advised the Libby school district to encapsulate the high school track built from mine tailings, saying the material was contaminated with tremolite asbestos. It was eventually paved over with asphalt.

It was also in 1982 that President Ronald Reagan appointed J. Peter Grace, then CEO of W. R. Grace, to what became known as the Grace Commission, a citizen body responsible for recommending to Congress deep cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency's budget and curtailment of their investigations. Although she can't prove it, Benefield believes that when the EPA came to town in 1980 to investigate the asbestos-contaminated vermiculite, it was because of the Grace Commission's report that the study was dropped two years later. According to Thomas Dixon, the EPA researcher on the study at the time, a budget cut is what forced the agency to focus on higher priority concerns such as asbestos in schools and dioxins.

Nevertheless, by then Benefield had become a determined whistleblower.

"I started to carry the message to our elected officials, right up to the governor's office," Benefield says. Libby is former Montana Governor Marc Racicot's hometown. So she figured somebody would do something about her findings and the overwhelming statistics, but she got no response. No one took action. While Racicot never visited his hometown to offer assistance and denied knowing anything about the problem, other evidence shows that the Montana State Board of Health was first aware of possible health impacts as far back as 1956.

So Benefield moved from political correctness to becoming a persistent thorn in the side of every elected official, both locally and in Helena. Most people thought she and the handful of others that got involved were crazy.

"But the biggest catalyst came when the first two (adult) children of a miner were diagnosed," Benefield says. "That was the real warning bell. Suddenly, if they could get sick, who else could?" But as more and more people in Libby got sick and died from diseases linked to asbestos, nobody but the victims and their loved ones seemed concerned enough to do anything about it, not even the medical community who simply treated the problems as they came up..

The exception was Dr. Richard Irons, the county health officer who in the early '80s traveled to company headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. to meet with management over health problems with people living in Libby. Internal memos reveal that the company feared that Irons was about "to blow the whistle." The company took no action, but Irons soon and unexpectedly moved from Libby.

Then in the fall of 1999, the tide finally turned.

"In August, 1999, I had the opportunity to go up Rainey Creek," says Benefield, "to the mine site. What I saw there just appalled me: waste piles left with nothing growing on them. I've never been an environmentalist and I've probably shun environmentalists because of the community I live in; but, suddenly I realized this should not be this way."

A month later a legal notice in the local paper caught her eye. Montana was about to release the final reclamation bond -- $66,700 -- on the last 125 acres at the mine site. Benefield learned that five years earlier, a half of a million dollars had been returned to the company. She was livid.

"I spent a week calling every agency I knew," Benefield says, "asking them if they were aware that 300 people had been diagnosed at that time with asbestosis including children of miners. Each agency denied any knowledge of any problems with the mine; each agency informed me that that property had been properly reclaimed by their standards. I started asking 'who's working for who'?"

Benefield next signed a formal complaint with the state Division of Environmental Quality. It got the ball rolling and caught the attention of Andrew Schneider, a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer who had been following W.R. Grace after Woburn, Massachusetts residents had gone to court, a battle that became the foundation for the book and movie, "A Civil Action."

Nationwide news coverage soon brought the EPA back to town. But she admits, within the community, even at that point, it was a fight. "There was complete denial that this had ever happened." she says.

Now, after more than a year of what she calls an uphill battle for victims and their families to receive the health care they need, and with millions of Superfund dollars being spent on asbestos clean-up in Libby, Gayla Benefield has found her niche as a citizen activist.

She now voluntarily heads the tax-exempt, nonprofit Lincoln County Asbestos Victims Relief Organization. The group is both an informational resource and assists victims with funds for medication and transportation not covered by the health plan funded by W.R. Grace.

Her energy is seemingly boundless as she also travels around the country and regularly to Helena and Washington, D.C., to speak to whomever she can about Libby's plight. She also attended a global asbestos conference in Brazil and helped citizens of Warwick, New York, defeat plans to reopen a tremolite quarry there. Their common bond, she says, is death and illness from asbestos dust.

"The common theme is the companies always knew and had no regard for the people," Benefield says. "I tell them, 'Don't feel sorry for us in Libby; use it as a lesson and don't let it happen to you.' "

Personal injury claims against W.R.Grace have been one recourse for people in Libby. Gayla Benefield took the company to court in 1998 in a wrongful death claim for her mother and a jury awarded her $250,000. She adds that's what it would have cost Grace to put a change room in at the mine so the men wouldn't have tracked the asbestos dust home to their families. The company had offered her more than double that amount to settle out of court, but she would have had to sign a gag order and she wanted the guilty verdict.

Hers was one of four cases that went to trial. Grace lost all four with verdicts ranging from $75,000 to $656,000 for a total of $1.4 million. Other cases have been settled out of court for undisclosed sums of money. In the year 2000 alone, Grace paid out $15.6 million in awards for 64 cases related to its Libby operations.

But in April 2001, W.R. Grace & Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The move stays any other personal injury claims from people in Libby and other class action lawsuits associated with the mine. Benefield says with the news of bankruptcy Grace is avoiding its responsibility for the deaths and illnesses it has caused in Libby, and to the people associated with the 300 sites around the country where vermiculite ore and products were shipped. Bankruptcy protection leaves 125,000 lawsuits against the company in limbo, including 125 from sick and dying residents of Libby.

Benefield also believes the company intentionally spun off its assets creating subsidiaries that insulate its wealth from victims' lawsuits. In 1995, Grace was a $5 billion company. Today it has less than two billion in sales with over a billion dollars in asbestos liabilities.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus recently came to Libby and met with Gayla Benefield and other members of the Community Advisory Group (CAG) on asbestos issues to discuss solutions to the problems the community faces. Baucus promised to take the group's request of a Congressional investigation into Grace's corporate activities back to Washington. The CAG also asked Congress to block the bankruptcy move.

Benefield told Sen. Baucus that if Grace goes bankrupt, "the community of Libby will end up becoming totally devastated. No one's life is worth what a bankruptcy court can offer. And that's pennies."

Baucus pledged to do everything humanly possible to make Libby whole again and bring justice to Grace. "Since I've been in public service, I've never seen anything as outragious as this."

"If anybody has a good, healthy pair of lungs, how much you want for them?" quips Les Skramstad of Libby, "I'll buy them."

Like other people with asbestosis, Skramstad has trouble breathing. Tall, very thin, and looking older than his 64 years, he was diagnosed with the disease in 1996. Skramstad began working for the Zonolite Company in 1959, before W. R. Grace & Company purchased the company, and stayed nearly three years. His first job was as a sweeper in the dry mill.

"It was so unbelievable. The amount of dust... you can't even describe how much it was. When it'd get six, eight, 10 inches deep then they'd send a sweeper in there to sweep it down. You'd put it in a wheelbarrow, then on the waste conveyor belt, and it took it out on the side of the mountain and dumped it. Incidentally, a lot of it is still there."

They called it "nuisance dust." But management never told Skramstad or the others that it was contaminated with deadly tremolite asbestos. Eventually he was given a respirator to wear, but it would get clogged in less than a minute. So like the rest of the men, he hung it on a nail on the wall.

"You just couldn't get enough air wearing it . . . " he says.

Skramstad enjoyed working for the Zonolite Company. He was in his early twenties, had a wife and family and as far as industrial jobs in Libby went, it was considered one of the best places in town to work. There was a strong camaraderie among the workers, too, he says, easily recalling the names of many of the other men. But as he tells his story, he adds that most of them have died. He's pretty sure that out of the 130 people that worked at the mine when he did, only he and four others are alive today.

Les Skramstad left the Zonolite Company a year before it was bought by W. R. Grace. His wife wanted to move to Kalispell, Mont., and so they did. After a couple of years they returned to Libby and Les found other work.

The change in ownership from Zonolite to W. R. Grace in 1963 didn't change operations very much. Grace worked to improve the ventilation system somewhat, but the state reported that their housekeeping was so poor that it counteracted any improvements. Essentially, much of the asbestos-laden "nuisance dust" remained for the workers to inhale, and it also was blown into the air through large chimneys at the mill for the rest of the people in Libby to breathe.

The EPA estimates that in the years that Grace owned the mine and before they were forced by the state and NIOSH to convert to a wet-mill process in 1974, 5,000 pounds or more of asbestos fiber spewed from the stacks on a daily basis, carried by winds all over the town. Les and his wife, Norita, remember the fine dust: It was everywhere--on cars, lawns, playgrounds.

Over the years that followed, the Skramstads began to take notice of a pattern in the deaths of former workers in their community.

"We'd read in the paper that somebody had died and in many cases I'd recognize the name right off as guys who worked for Zonolite or W.R. Grace," he says. "We'd just go to the funerals and haul them out to the cemetery and didn't know why. Most of the times they weren't old enough to be dying."

Skramstad also worked downtown at what was called the expansion plant at the end of Libby's main street. It was next to the export facility where the raw vermiculite ore was bagged, loaded into box cars and shipped by rail to hundreds of places across the country. There he heated the vermiculite to very high temperatures and popped it like popcorn, expanding the golden, mica-like flakes into a puffy, lightweight substance that doesn't burn.

They named it Zonolite. Millions of pounds of vermiculite were expanded in Libby and other places and sold across the country first by Zonolite Company and then by W. R. Grace as home insulation, potting soil, lawn fertilizer, and many other consumer products. The mine in Libby, until its closure in 1990, supplied 85 percent of the world's vermiculite, both as ore and these manufactured products. It was always sold without warning labels even though it contained tremolite asbestos. The insulation alone is estimated to be in millions of homes across the country.

In 1977 the company discussed whether to close the Libby mine, discontinue sales of Zonolite, or to adhere warning labels to its products. But because the company feared any of these actions would seriously diminish company profits of millions of dollars, each idea was dumped and Zonolite stayed on the market until 1984, when legal problems with asbestos finally forced the company's hand. A bagging operation of finer grade ore continued at the former expansion plant in Libby until 1990. W.R. Grace to this day insists that its products are safe.

Les Skramstad claims that Zonolite Company workers or W. R. Grace employees in Libby weren't told of the asbestos, or "tramp material" as the company called it, clinging to the vermiculite ore, nor of the health hazards this tremolite asbestos posed. He even recalls one day being told to drive up to the mine site and shovel a pick-up load of what he was told was asbestos rock, bring it down to the expansion plant, dry it out with fans, and bag it up. It amazes him still.

"We had no idea that it was lethal. We just cleaned it," he says. He didn't know what asbestos was back in 1960, but he now knows industry did.

The needle-like fibers of tremolite asbestos are hard to detect and once airborne, they're easily inhaled and lodge in the lungs. Scarring occurs as the white blood cells unsuccessfully try to destroy the invader. It takes time for asbestosis to manifest -- 10 to 40 years. The scar tissue builds up enough to reduce the elasticity of the lungs and inhibit breathing. Eventually, the victim suffocates.

Gayla Benefield is a friend of Les Skramstad and his wife Norita. When he developed a persistent cough despite treatments for bronchitis, Benefield convinced him to go to Spokane and see Dr. Alan Whitehouse, a pulmonologist who has diagnosed and treated several hundred of Libby residents for asbestos-related diseases. The doctor told him he had asbestosis.

"My wife and I drove home from Spokane and never said a word," Skramstad says. About halfway home, he pulled the car over and in his soft-spoken way said, "By God, I've just been given a death sentence. That's a pretty stiff price to pay for two and a half years of work." They never said another word to each other the rest of the way back to Libby.

With Benefield's encouragement, Skramstad filed a personal injury claim against W. R. Grace. His was the first case to go to jury and he was awarded $600,000. He never saw that money, though. W. R. Grace lawyers appealed the decision, and figuring he would die before the matter was settled, Skramstad contacted the company and renegotiated a settlement to get what money he could. A gag order prevents him from disclosing the amount.

In Libby, W. R. Grace stored the expanded vermiculite in bins next to the expansion plant which was also adjacent to athletic fields in town. Having kids playing on the ball fields next to the expansion plant was dangerous enough, Les Skramstad says, but leaping into the bins was also a popular pastime for Libby's youngsters. A rope hung from the rafters and the kids used it to swing into the piles of Zonolite. During a ballgame, those kids not on the field would play in the popped vermiculite. Parents encouraged it because they thought it was safer than playing by the Kootenai River behind the dugout.

The Skramstad's own kids played ball on those fields. Sampling done by the EPA and health studies by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) now show that many Libby children were exposed to tremolite in this manner putting them at extreme risk to lung diseases. Now as adults in their late twenties to late thirties, they, too, are being diagnosed with asbestosis.

Skramstad asks, "Where's it going to stop?"

A couple months ago, Libby's school superintendent asked the EPA to sample and check all the school playgrounds, school tracks, ball fields, day care facilities, and public parks for asbestos contamination. Either raw ore or mine tailings were used in several places as cheap fill. The EPA only found traces of asbestos under cracking asphalt that was used to cap these filled areas on the high school and middle school tracks. But just this April, an old, ice skating rink at Plummer Elementary School lately used to house bicycle racks was discovered to be contaminated with asbestos ore from the Grace mine. The agency immediately responded by covering the barren dirt with plastic and four inches of soil and roping off the area with danger signs. The soils will be removed when school is out.

Even though Les Skramstad only worked a couple years at the vermiculite mine, his days of dealing with W. R. Grace aren't over by a longshot. His wife Norita has also been diagnosed with asbestosis and three of his five children, a son and two daughters. Tremolite is highly electrostatic in nature. He unknowingly brought the deadly microscopic asbestos fibers home on his clothing and in his automobile.

"It's too big of a load to carry. We didn't have this coming," Skramstad says. "Just for me to have a job, they shouldn't have had to forfeit their lives. I shouldn't have either, but, the fact that my family had no idea and I had no idea that I was dragging it home, taking it home to my wife and kids, that is unforgivable. And still that company don't seem to care. I don't know how I'm going to handle it if others come down with it . . . I guess cowards way out of it, I won't be around to witness it, but it will still be there."

The bad news continues to plague them. The Skramstad's just got word that their youngest daughter, Sloan, has scarring on her lungs and chest wall. She's 32 years old. She wasn't born until several years after her father worked at the mine. By then the family had returned from Kalispell and lived in a different house. But, her mom says she never missed a game of softball. It took Les and Norita Skramstad quite by surprise.

" Just when I get to the point that I think I can handle what's been happening, we get this news and it stirs everything up again," Les Skramstad says. "It's just devastating. . . it refires my anger (towards Grace)."

The tragedy in his own family and the rest of the community has empowered Skramstad to do more than just wait to die. He has helped Gayla Benefield get the word out, traveling last year even to Washington, D.C., to fight a bad bill in Congress that was introduced by then Senator, and now Attorney General John Ashcroft. It would have limited the industry's financial support to asbestos victims. The bill failed.

Skramstad feels a sense of personal responsibility to his community to do what he can, despite failing health. So this year, he and his wife also made two long trips to Helena, the state capital, including one to testify against a bill in the state legislature that would limit asbestos worker claims to Workman's Compensation, and another to meet with Governor Judy Martz.

Their eldest son, Brent, joined them in the meeting with the governor. He lives in Havre, Mont., and like his parents, has asbestosis. Already the manual labor he's used to doing is getting difficult because of lack of air, and he can't find insurance coverage for health care. But Brent Skramstad is far more concerned about his own children. They once lived in Libby, too.

The Skramstad family asked Gov. Martz to help the people in Libby, especially in resources from the Department of Health and Human Services. They said the governor made no promises, but seemed earnest in her concern with Libby's plight. Her father was a miner in Butte who died from silicosis, another occupational respiratory disease.

With Grace filing for bankruptcy, health care from the company beyond this year is uncertain, says Alan Stringer, the Grace representative in Libby. That's not good news for the people of Libby, says Les Skramstad, since it can cost up to $500,000 in health care for the last five years of an asbestosis victim's life.

"People are still being exposed," he says. "I cannot stand by and watch it take innocent people be they wives, kids, grandmas or grandpas." As long as he's got the strength and air to do it, he says he will help his community handle this tragedy, somehow.

And there's one thing Les Skramstad wants from W. R. Grace.

"Never have they said that they were wrong. They have never once said six words: 'We were wrong, we are sorry.' "