Justice remains elusive for this asbestos-ravaged town

Justice remains elusive for this asbestos-ravaged town

Justice remains elusive for this asbestos-ravaged town

So as they wandered the Libby cemetery on a blustery Montana morning, they worked the graves like a block party — retelling old stories and commiserating with the dead.
Talk turned to their own fates. Both sisters suffer from the microscopic asbestos fibres lodged deep in their lungs. Their breathing is sometimes choked by plaque building up around the fibres. If it progresses into cancerous mesothelioma, they face certain death. “If you’re lucky, you get hit by a truck and you go quickly,” Benefield said, her face betraying no emotion but her voice tight with anger.

The sisters’ town, Libby, population 3,000 along the Kootenai River, has emerged as the deadliest Superfund site in the nation’s history. Health workers tracking Libby’s plight estimate at least 400 people have died of asbestos-related illnesses — from W R Grace mine workers and family members who breathed in the dust they brought home in their clothes, to those who played as kids in waste piles dumped by the company behind the community baseball field. Some 1,500 locals and others who were exposed have chest X-rays revealing the faint, cloudy shadows of asbestos scarring on their lungs.

Even though research long showed cause for concern — up to 70 per cent of miners in a 1980s study had fibres in their lungs — it took news reports about the deaths to drive officials to action, beginning a decade ago. After the cleanup began, the US Environmental Protection Agency confidently predicted it would be done in two years at a cost of $5.8 million. Ten years on, the price tag has exceeded $333 million, the deaths continue, and more asbestos keeps showing up — in schools, in businesses, in hundreds of houses.

The scope of contamination has at times overwhelmed environmental regulators, dragging out the cleanup, an Associated Press review of hundreds of pages of government documents and interviews with current and former agency officials revealed.
News cameras returned to Libby last June, when new EPA chief Lisa Jackson declared a health emergency, a step the agency rejected during the Bush administration.

New patients continue to file into the local clinic to be diagnosed with asbestos illnesses at the rate of 15 to 20 a month. Because of a decades-long latency period, such diagnoses are expected for at least another 10 years. The EPA this month took its first step toward wrapping up its efforts over the next two to three years, rekindling anxieties.

“Everybody wants Libby to go away and it’s not going away,” said Dr Brad Black, director of Libby’s Centre for Asbestos Related Diseases. His stethoscope pressed against the back of a 36-year-old patient who never worked in the mine, Black said the man’s exposure likely came from playing in a friend’s contaminated house as a child.

Moving the whole town
Some scientists say the threat will exist as long as people remain in Libby — and the notion of moving the whole town has been floated by an attorney for a citizens’ group. But just as some residents maintained a fierce loyalty to W R Grace even as fatal asbestos illness spread, the idea of moving now is quickly discarded.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you leave Libby?’” Benefield said. “I’ve got the fibre in me. That won’t make the problem go away. Not at all.”
There is a still a modicum of company-town mentality in Libby. Merchants argue that asbestos isn’t the only thing killing the town; they talk about the blow the economy took when the EPA first showed up and sparked a media frenzy, then when Jackson arrived last year.

Tucked among the closed-down storefronts now lining Mineral Avenue in downtown Libby are a scattering of stubborn businesses that hung on through the mine and mill closings, the asbestos revelations, the recession.
Benefield, a former bartender and truck driver, said she’s been to four asbestos-related funerals so far this year and has started making preparations for her own burial. So has Thomson, who bought a plot alongside her deceased husband, Dale, a supervisor for Grace who died at age 61 in 1992.

No one has gone to jail for what happened in Libby.
Several Grace executives were prosecuted on charges of covering up the asbestos danger. But they were found not guilty last fall. US district judge Donald Molloy ruled many internal memos and other documents that suggested Grace’s culpability could not be used as evidence because some were decades old.
In 1998, Benefield and Thomson won the first court victory for secondary asbestos exposure against Grace, a $2,50,000 civil award for the death of their mother. That triumph has long since been overshadowed by loss.
Benefield said every adult member of her family more than 47 years old has been diagnosed with asbestos scarring. The latest, her older daughter, got the news in February.

“After 10 years, how far have we come?” Benefield asked. “We’ve removed a lot of material. We’ve buried a lot of people. My God, it’s a nightmare.”