At U.S. Highway 2 crosses Montana, it is dotted along its 600-mile length with signposts bearing white crosses. They flicker past like small anonymous advertisements, punctuating the mostly empty road, which stretches across the sparsely populated top of the state – from the wheat fields of Wolf Point in the east, past the wind-scoured town of Chinook, where the plains collide with the Rocky Mountains, skirting the lower fringes of Glacier National Park, and continuing through a claustrophobic corridor of ragged hills. The crosses mark the sites of highway fatalities. Some of them are hung with plastic wreaths; some have names scratched on their surfaces; some are bent by winds and ice; many are rusted.

For a while, as if playing a child's game with myself, I keep tally of the roadside body count, which lends me the impression that I am being shepherded along my route by specters, that death forms the backdrop of this journey. Near Libby, a hamlet on the northwestern edge of the state, the white crosses begin to multiply, like rogue vegetation. In one innocuous stretch, just outside town, there is a cross every hundred yards or so, a cross stands beside a sign announcing the town limits, in view of the great charred steel skeleton of a former sawmill; yet another one decorates the lawn outside the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, whose officials have spent the past few years battling the notion that the town, population 2,675, has become, as one resident put it, "America's Chernobyl."

Directly behind the Chamber of Commerce sits a charmless rectangle about the size of a pair of football fields, hemmed in by a chain-link fence. This is Libby's cemetery, adorned with its own bland rows of crosses. Diane Keck knows this place. Until 1954, when she was 15 and her family moved away, her father was the town undertaker. "In the course of my father's job, he noticed something strange," she says. "A lot of the men who worked up at the mine just outside town were dying young. He made a connection. He told us kids to stay away from the stuff from the mine." Some of that stuff – a micalike mineral of a thousand uses called vermiculite, which is tinged with tremolite, a naturally occurring and particularly virulent form of asbestos – was forever drifting through the air around Libby. The mineral hung in dust clouds over the town and accumulated on the ground at a plant where ore was processed and shipped. "They would dump it into open boxcars and there would be a big poof of smoke," Keck remembers. "And there were big piles of it, like mountains, and we would play blindman's bluff around them."

Ten years ago, Keck started coughing , and she hasn't stopped since. When she hikes in the woods, she gets short of breath. Doctors tell her that she has signs of asbestosis, an incurable lung disease that is caused almost exclusively by industrial exposure to asbestos. A few years ago, Keck learned that most of the children from her old neighborhood had also been diagnosed with asbestos-related lung disease. Her brother has it; so does her nephew, who grew up nearby; so, too, it seems, does nearly everyone in town.

It takes little more than five minutes to drive through Libby, but I have no intention of passing through. The town is the site of a toxic contamination that is unprecedented in American history, and I have followed a trail of white crosses here to meet the people and to hear their stories. Libby has always been remote and rugged, even by Montana standards, and until recently it was a tight-knit, seemingly idyllic community, shadowed by the rough peaks of the Cabinet Mountains, their slopes drenched in blue light. You don't have to hike very far into the hills around town to come upon a chain of secluded lakes, and you can still spend days at those heights without crossing paths with another person. Grizzlies roam the woods, and trout cluster in the shallows of the Kootenai River, which cuts through town. But the fresh, folkloric Rocky Mountain air has become a burden rather than a blessing for many of Libby's residents, who, like Keck, are enduring the effects of a lung-thickening disease and opening their homes to hazardous-waste workers in hooded Tyvek suits who are equipped with respirators and sensitive monitors.

This is the short form of the telling: Just north of Libby stands a hill that once looked like any other hill. For 67 years, the shape of this hill was altered by explosives and earthmovers, and by the labor of men who were brought up the hill on clattering buses. The men came up, and the rock they dug out was brought down, tens of thousands of pounds of rock each hour. It was hard work, removing the top of the hill, but it was good work. It supported generations of families. True, the miners died young, but danger was an accepted part of their daily routine; grousing about pain and misfortune was not. Miners kept their suspicions about the vermiculite dust that coated their work clothes to themselves.

Then, in 1990, the hill was vacated by W.R. Grace, the multinational corporation that had operated the mine since 1963. Although the company possessed detailed knowledge of the asbestos hazards to which its workers had been exposed, it had kept that knowledge to itself. State and federal governments had also been aware of the risks. Ironically, Marc Racicot, Montana's attorney general from 1989 to 1993, and its governor from 1993 to 2001, was raised in Libby. But even that didn't compel state officials to inform the community.

By 1995, a few families had noticed that miners' wives were dying of their husbands' ailment, and the miners' children, too, had learned that they often shared it, as if the hazards of the trade were genetically passed on. But not until 1999 did residents begin to notice that asbestosis was showing up in people who had never been at the mine and had never lived with miners. Still, there was no organized outcry about the contamination until the end of that year, when the Environmental Protection Agency began a belated full-scale investigation of the town's legacy of pollution.

The EPA discovered that asbestos has probably shortened the lives of most of the 1,898 workers who toiled at the mine between 1940 and 1990. What's more, the effects are ongoing. An astounding one third of Libby's residents are believed to have contracted asbestos-related lung disease. "We haven't begun to count the number of people who have been, or will be, killed by this," an EPA scientist, protective of his identity, told me, before adding with disgust, "This was deliberate murder."

Soon after I arrive in Libby, I meet a man named Les Skramstad, whose thin, wavering voice barely rises above a whisper. Skramstad, 64, is grizzled and bowlegged and wears a camouflage cap with a dirty feather stuck in its side. A toothpick often hangs from his mouth when he speaks. Although Skramstad didn't receive a high school diploma until he was in his 40s, he is as forceful and eloquent a man I have met. He has worked as a rancher and a logger and a mechanic. Once, for barely three years, he worked as a miner in Libby and as a result has full-blown asbestosis. "Full-blown is when you got a death sentence," he says. "You better put your affairs in order." In 1997, Skramstad sued W.R. Grace for personal injury. His was the first of only three cases in Libby to reach a jury, and he won a judgment of $660,000 against the company, which has made him something of a pariah in town. But his victory didn't dispel his bitterness about what he and his community have suffered. "Should a person have to die just because they live in Libby?" he asks.

"It was more or less like a brotherhood at the mine. The first day of work, I got on the busy downtown and they hauled us up on the hill. There was a guy named Tom DeShazer, and I walked over to him and said, 'Here I am,' and he said, 'Yeah, you're going to go be a sweeper in the mill.' He sent me over to the warehouse to get a respirator. I'd never seen a respirator before. A guy named Shorty Welch handed it to me, and I said, 'What am I supposed to do with this?' and he kind of laughed and said, 'Well, wear it if you can.' It was a little aluminum gadget, about the size of your hand, that fit over your nose and mouth.

"I got on the man-lift and rode up to the top floor of that mill, and, my God, I'd never seen anything like it in my life. I guess a guy has seen a dust storm before. The dust was probably three, four inches deep. It was almost like walking on a real plushy carpet. It was so dusty that it was hard to see what the heck was going on.

"I believe I was getting $2.10 an hour. I really wanted that job, so, boy, I started sweeping with all my might. After about 15 minutes, Jesus, I couldn't breathe. So I threw that respirator off, and it was plagued with dust. I thought I was going to suffocate. Everyone who worked up there looked the same after a few hours. We all looked brown.

"I was beating this dust off myself so I could eat lunch when Tom DeShazer said, 'Oh, don't pay any attention to that. It's just a nuisance dust. It won't hurt you. You can eat a ton of it and it'll never hurt you.'"–Les Skramstad

I am standing on the porch of a whitewashed house three miles from W.R. Grace's defunct mine. The house is owned by history buff, gentleman farmer, and amateur toxic-contamination expert Mike Powers. Powers, 64, came to Libby 20 years ago and Kootenai, where he tends his small herd of exotic Swiss cattle and lives in an old farmhouse built from hand-hewn logs.

Once, long ago, Powers's farm played host to the workshop in which the potent dust that helped build and bury Libby was first stirred up. The wizard of Libby, a man named E.N. Alley, who died two years before Powers's birth, slept in the house where Powers now sleeps, and left traces of his handiwork all over the property.

In 1921, Alley ventured into a disused 40-foot-deep shaft that had been dug into a hill near his ranch. He carried a torch to light his way. Before long, he heard a sizzling sound. His flame had roasted some of the loose rock in the tunnel, and the pebbles had puffed up, like popcorn, and drifted before his eyes. Alley had found the world's largest deposit of vermiculite, whose peculiar exfoliating properties are due to the evaporation of water molecules between the rock's layers. Alley staked his miner's claim, came up with the suitably Jazz Age name Zonolite for his product, and christened the mountain after the brand. What he didn't know was that the vermiculite was inextricably braided with asbestos fibers, and that inhaling those fibers – especially in high concentration, especially over long stretches of time – would kill a man.

Zonolite was marketed as a lightweight, nonflammable additive to construction materials, and by 1926 a hundred tons of it were being produced in Libby daily. Its most widespread application would be home insulation – today, as many as 15 million attics in the United States may contain asbestos-laced Zonolite. A mill was built on top of Zonolite Mountain to separate valuable ore from waste rock. The mill stood 10 stories tall, higher by far than any building in Libby, and featured a tangle of grinders, steel screens, conveyor belts, and chutes. Ore would be poured in at the top, and by the time it tumbled to the bottom, being crushed as it fell, it had been sifted into a granular residue. The milling produced plumes of thick, white dust – containing up to 5,000 pounds of asbestos each day – that billowed from atop the mountain, settling on the hillside and in creek beds and hovering over Libby like a fog. Children in town would write their names in the dust on sidewalks.

By 1942, when the state of Montana first contacted the Zonolite Company to express its concern about the dust at the mine, there was already ample medical knowledge about the danger of asbestos. The author of a 1937 article in The New England Journal of Medicine did not mince words. "Asbestos," he wrote, "is extremely dangerous and fatal." Such warnings did not deter W.R. Grace, then based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from buying Zonolite in 1963, or from doubling the mine's daily output – to 15,000 tons of ore, containing 900,000 pounds of asbestos – between then and 1990, when the mine closed after mounting signs of a future filled with asbestos-related litigation had become impossible to ignore.

Although Powers never worked in the mine, he recently learned that his lungs are diseased from inhaling asbestos. "My only exposure," he says, "is living here." We tour his farm, and everywhere we go he points out glittering flecks of vermiculite. Standing in the former chicken house, Powers tells me, "The carpenter who helped me work on this building – his lungs are full of asbestos. The guy that worked on the furnace shield has it. The electrician, the plumber – they have it." Powers figures that the property into which he has sunk his savings and his labor is unsalable. "Maybe," he says, "W.R. Grace will buy this farm and turn it into an asbestos theme park." As he talks, Powers bangs on a wall and jolts a puff of vermiculite dust loose into the air.

"Look there," he says. "Strange how it catches in the cobwebs."

"I'd come home from work pretty well laden with dust, and my kids were little at that time, and they'd meet me at the door and grab my legs, and they'd get a blast of it. Then my wife, Norita, would give me a hug at the door, and she'd get a dose of it, too. I contaminated them every single day. If it had just took the lives of us miners, that would have been bad enough. But I carried it home and gave it to my wife and three of our five children. That's a pretty poor percentage. My daughter Laurel, she's got six kids. She's got it. And my boy Brent, he's got it real bad, like me, full-blown. My grandfather lived to be 88. My dad lived to be 78. I may not make 68. Brent, he may not make 48. Any man should look out for his family first, and being that I had a hand in their destiny, that's pretty grim." –Les Skramstad

Chris Weis, a 47-year-old toxicologist, was not, at first, alarmed. Based in Denver, Weis specializes in emergency response for the EPA's Region 8 office, which covers the northern Rockies. Just before Thanksgiving 1999, while attending a meeting in Helena, Montana, Weis was paged by his managers. The agency had seen an inflammatory report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concerning a small town that Weis had never heard of where close to 200 deaths and another 400 cases of fatal illness were being attributed to exposure to mine contaminants.

"Look," he tells me, in the EPA's field office in Libby, "I've got a doctorate in toxicology and a doctorate in medical physiology. My first reaction to the reports was, This doesn't happen."

Weis nonetheless went to Libby to investigate, visiting the former mine and a number of sites where ore was processed and handled. He contacted a pulmonologist in Spokane, Washington, 200 miles to the west, who had treated hundreds of Libby residents for asbestos-related lung disease, which occurred in town at 60 times the national average rate. He learned of at least 19 local cases of an invariably fatal cancer called mesothelioma, whose only known cause is exposure to asbestos, and which is so rare that, as Weis says, "one case in a population of a million is considered an epidemic." He spent some time talking to residents. "Libby is a small town," he points out, "so if you talk to 40 or 50 people and every one of them has a neighbor or family member with an asbestos-related disease – to say the least, that's unusual." Weis returned to Denver persuaded that Libby had the distinction of hosting "the most severe human exposure to a hazardous material this country has ever seen."

Within two days, the EPA descended on Libby in full force, bringing in a team of scientists, physicians, geologists, and toxic-cleanup experts. None of them were prepared for the dimensions of the disaster they would discover. They learned that W.R Grace had "pumped so much asbestos fiber into the airshed here, it hung in the center of town in concentrations that were probably 20 times higher than the present occupational-exposure limit," Weis says. They learned that when W.R. Grace left town in 1990, the company had done a sloppy job cleaning up its former properties, which remained highly contaminated. And there was more. "We found disturbing evidence that the material had been readily accessible to the general public in Libby. Ore was often free for the taking. Kids played in it; it was in sandboxes and on ball fields. People would load up their pickup trucks and take it home to use in their gardens as a soil amendment and on their driveways as a surfacing material. When the high school track needed resurfacing in the 1970s, W.R. Grace brought down truckloads of raw ore – almost, in some cases, pure asbestos – and covered the track with it. Kids ran on mine tailings until 1983."

Finally, the EPA called in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which invited the residents of Libby and the surrounding valley, past and present, to undergo screening for signs of asbestos-related disease. As Weis recalls, "We anticipated that, given the severity of exposures in Libby, we might see possibly as much as 10 or 12 percent of the population come back with scarring on their lungs." Chest X-rays were taken of 6,144 people. Preliminary results released this March, representing 1,078 of those examined, revealed that 30 percent showed symptoms of lung disease. "We just weren't prepared for that," Weis says. "What's unprecedented is that so many of these sick people had no known source of exposure to asbestos. They only lived in Libby."

Weis was also shocked to discover that his predecessors at the EPA and other federal agencies had been well informed of the dangers in Libby. "The pieces of this situation were put together in the seventies," he says. "Very detailed studies were done. The results were unequivocal." While it's true that until 1970, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, regulatory oversight of work places was severely limited, rarely had a year passed since the mid-fifties in which some government agency did not visit Libby and come back with troubling findings. In 1968, for instance, the U.S. Public Health Service warned W.R. Grace that "the dust concentrations are from 10 to 100 times in excess of the safe limit."

Nonetheless, a series of EPA memos in the early eighties addressing the health risks at the mine were allowed to languish. At that time, President Reagan, in his first term, was intent on reducing government spending in order to cut taxes. (In a report issued this spring, the office of the EPA's inspector general acknowledge that the "EPA did not place emphasis on dealing with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite due to funding constraints and competing priorities.") It's worth noting that in 1982, Reagan convened a closed-door gathering of advisers to come up with suggestions for where to trim the budget. The group, called the Grace Commission, was chaired by an old friend of the president's, J. Peter Grace, the president and CEO of W.R. Grace.

The EPA is still cleaning up Libby, having spent $12 million on its efforts in 2000, with another $16 million budgeted for 2001. Sixty to 70 percent of Libby's homes are thought to contain vermiculite insulation. Most yards have vermiculite in the soil. At dusk, the streets downtown still glisten with a sheen of powdery ore. Nights at my motel, I often pass hazardous-waste workers in the hallway. They have been brought to Libby by the EPA. By day, they can be seen entering sealed houses around town, beating pillows, vacuuming curtains, and dusting mantels in an effort to measure how much asbestos fiber has worked its way into the fiber of daily life in Libby.

Naturally, the ore that was taken from W.R. Grace's mine did not stay in Libby for long. It was transported to more than 250 processing plants around the country. The EPA has barely started examining these sites. In Minneapolis, though, the agency tracked down 57 former employees of a factory that had received its share of Libby's vermiculite. Twenty-four of those workers either had died or were dying of asbestos-related disease.

"You can still go to your local Kmart and buy gardening supplies that contain Libby vermiculite," says Weis, who is in charge of gathering and evaluating scientific data on Libby's contamination. "Speaking purely as a toxicologist, I've never seen as hideous a poison as this material."

"Around the last part of 1960, a boss at the experimental lab come down and told us, 'I want you to get in the pickup and go up on the hill and get a load of asbestos.' That was the first time I ever heard the word. I'd seen a lot of it up there, but I didn't know what it was. We got shovels and picks and dug it out of the hill. We brought it down to town, and spread it out as thin as possible in our work area, and put electric heaters on it to dry out. We got on our hands and knees to pick out rocks from it, because we'd been told they wanted 100 percent asbestos. We worked every day on it, all day long, for a couple of weeks. When the stuff got dry, the wind would blow through the door and scatter it all over the building. We didn't want to lose any of it, so we sealed up all the doors with rags. I had no idea what they wanted it for. But like I say, we were just paid to do a job. There was not a peep about it being dangerous." –Les Skramstad

Its name comes from a Greek word meaning "inextinguishable," and it endures fire, flood, and frost as fiercely as it clings to a person's lungs. A human hair is well over a thousand times as thick as one of its strands. It can be woven like cotton, which cannot be said of any other mineral. It has been an ingredient in at least 3,000 products, common and rare, and, despite the widespread and mistaken impression that it has been banned – efforts by the EPA to do so, in 1989, were overturned on legal technicalities – it remains ubiquitous, not only in insulation but in clutch and brake linings, in pipe and boiler insulation, in wallboard and floor tiles, in oven mitts and plastic pot handles, and in baby powder.

Its advocates and apologists will dispute it, but over the past century, a vast medical literature has exhaustively described the means by which asbestos has killed, according to EPA estimates, 259,000 people in the United States, with another 166,000 deaths anticipated over the next 30 years. Among the proud array of carcinogenic products, natural and fabricated, only tobacco has contributed to a higher death toll. Most of its victims will never know what caused their death, because they are unaware they have been exposed to it, and the lapse between exposure and the onset of illness is typically longer than 10 years. In this way, it maims not like a gun, inflicting harm at the moment of contact, but rather like a land mine, which lies dormant for years.

"There's something about this fiber that's not average," says Dr. Brad Black, the director of Libby's new Center for Asbestos-Related Disease. Black's job is not what he bargained for when he opted to be a small-town doctor in a place served by a 24-bed hospital and fewer than 10 physicians. Since the "asbestos clinic," as everyone in town calls it, opened last year, Black has seen, he estimates, four or five hundred asbestos-diseased patients, including the construction worker whose chest X-ray he has put on display for me.

"See those large patches of white?" Black says, pointing to blocks of washed-out-looking glare that rim the dark crescents of lung. "They wouldn't be there in a healthy lung. It's scarring." Black explains that tremolite asbestos fibers, once inhaled, embed themselves in the lining of the lung – the pleura – like needles, and stay there. The body can't flush them out; medicine can't destroy them; surgery can't cut them out. Surrounding tissue responds to the irritation by calcifying. A healthy pleura is as thick as Saran Wrap; in a person with asbestosis, it may be as thick as an orange peel. Then the lung itself gets covered with calloused tissue; oxygen struggles to find its way into the lung, and carbon dioxide struggles to find its way out. "It's just a progressive scarring," Black explains, "until respiratory or heart failure."

If one were to attempt to devise the perfect suffering, death by asbestosis would come close to fitting the bill. It is slow and incapacitating. It steadily wastes the patient. It brings the patient to the very verge of suffocation and allows him to remain there for months, even years, on end, to reflect on his situation. A typical patient will cough until he vomits. His lungs will fill with fluid. He will feel as if he is swimming in the fluid, drowning.

Just ask Don Kaeding, who survived four years as an artilleryman during the Second World War, but is paying for his 28 months of service on behalf of Zonolite. I find Kaeding yoked by a 50-foot length of tube to a noisy machine in the corner of his living room. The tubing fits snugly in his nostrils, curls over his ears, runs down his shirt, and snakes its way along the wall to a canister that feeds Kaeding his breath. "God damn, but this is an irritating disease," he says apologetically. "I got these cords to drag around, and they're always in everybody's way. My wife's mother tripped on them one night and broke her arm." Kaeding is 78. His skin is ashen, his hair waxy, his lips blue. He's been on supplemental oxygen for five years, like a puppet on a life-giving string, and, as he tells me, "ain't no one volunteers for this."

Kaeding – who filed a personal-injury suit against W.R. Grace, only to have his claim dismissed for exceeding the three-year statute of limitations – is one of a cadre of Libby residents being kept alive by mechanical means. Most of them don't leave the house much, because the effort of slipping into a portable oxygen unit, which weighs down a frail body and which gets unpleasantly frosty, tends to consume as much energy as an oxygen-deprived person can muster on a given day. Nonetheless, I spot shoppers resting their air tanks in their carts at the local grocery store. I see an oxygen-outfitted man wheeling a bicycle around town, stowing his gear as others would their Gatorade. And one of my new circle of asbestos-diseases acquaintances tells me the tale of an old woman in Libby who, not long ago, while hooked up to her air supply, put her head beneath her bedcovers, lit a furtive cigarette, and blew herself straight to the next world.

EXCERPT FROM THE DEPOSITION OF EARL LOVICK,FORMER LIBBY MINE SUPERINTENDENT, OCTOBER 27, 1998
Q: And you knew at least by 1962 that your men were being diseased, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: It wasn't at risk of disease, they were in fact being diseased, correct?
A: Some of them, yes, sir.
Q: And they were in fact dying, correct?
A: Some of them, yes, sir.
Q: You had absolute proof that these men had been diseased up there at the mill by 1966 at the latest? Is that true?
A: Yes, sir, that would be true.
Q: And none of the records you had on that were shared with the men. Is that true?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And so at this point it wasn't just a matter of men being exposed to something that might injure or kill them, these men were already injured and dying, and they were continuing to be exposed every day, is that true?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And is it fair to say that since you knew that workers were going home with asbestos dust on them, that they were taking home toxic dust?
A: Yes.

Alan Stringer is in a bind. Stringer, 57, is an engineer of mines, after all, not an engineer of facts, and it turns out that it was an easier job to run an operation that exposed a town to hazards, as Stringer did in Libby from 1981 until the mine shut down, than it is to deal with the emotional, medical, and political fallout. But Stringer is a loyal man, a company man, and when W.R. Grace called on him to be its stand-up guy in Libby once again – dealing with flak from the press and the EPA and the community – he opened an office on Mineral Avenue, downtown, just down the block from the EPA, a few blocks from the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease.

"There's no question, it's a sad story," he says. Sadder, too, because W.R. Grace was an excellent record keeper, which only makes Stringer's job of defending the company tougher. A detailed paper trail demonstrates the company's awareness, even before it purchased Zonolite in 1963, of the asbestos problem in Libby. How to respond to a 1956 report by an inspector for Montana's Division of Disease Control noting that "the asbestos dust in the air is of considerable toxicity"? Or to an internal company memo, from 1967, that refers to "a potentially large group of employees who may already have the beginnings of [asbestos]"? Or to a 1969 company briefing, marked CONFIDENTIAL and given the subject heading "Vermiculite Report for Mr. Grace," that concludes with the sentence "Tremolite asbestos is a definite health hazard at both the Libby operation and at the expanding plants using the ore"? Well, for Alan Stringer, the response is, "It was another time, another understanding."

Indeed, when times were good in Libby, no one – not workers, nor union representatives, nor politicians in a community in which W.R. Grace was the largest taxpayer – felt pressed to inquire too deeply into the health of miners. Among town doctors, silence was the rule. While the mine was active, W.R. Grace always occupied a seat on the board of the local hospital. As Black remembers, "If you'd have brought up this topic for discussion, you'd have been run out of town as a rabid environmentalist." The company was a pillar of the community. When civic groups were raising funds, the company was there. When the ball field needed new bleachers, the company was there.

But the company also failed to share the results of its own medical-screening program with its employees, even when, in 1969, those tests showed that 92 percent of longtime mine workers were diseased. It would not, it seems, have been cost-effective to acknowledge that working at the mine could make a man terribly sick. A 1968 memo from high-ranking W.R. Grace executive Peter Kostic suggested that 32 diseased miners be shifted to less-strenuous work so that "we may be able to keep them on the job until they retire, thus precluding the high cost of total disability." The company failed, as well, to provide workers with on-site showers, an amenity that might have reduced the amount of toxic material miners brought home with them. Neither company memo, from 1983 – when Stringer was mine superintendent – considered the $373,000 cost of installing such showers in forbidding tones, concluding, "I recommend that no action be taken at this time."

W.R. Grace says that the company compiled with ever-changing regulations limiting asbestos exposure, which became more stringent during the 1970s and '80s, and that, alarmed by high rates of lung disease in its workers, it did take steps to reduce dust at the Libby mine. Only in retrospect, the company says, did it become clear that workers and residents had been exposed to harmful levels of tremolite asbestos. Still, the company's files are filled with material that has given Stringer a serious public relations headache.

But slick PR doesn't seem to be a strength at W.R. Grace, which was notably vilified in the book and movie A Civil Action for allegedly dumping cancer-causing chemicals in the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts. The company's image wasn't burnished any in Libby when, in this past April, W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, citing its need for protection from some 325,000 personal-injury claims that had been made against its asbestos-containing products, especially a fire-retardant spray-on insulator called Monokote. By its own account, the pared-down company, which began spinning off its assets in 1995, when it had revenues of $6 billion, did only $1.6 billion in business in 2000, while it forecasts asbestos-related liabilities of $878 million. "Grace cannot defend itself against unmeritorious claims," said Paul J. Norris, the company's chairman, president, and CEO, in announcing the bankruptcy.

Two days after the announcement, I meet with Roger Sullivan, a lawyer in Kalispell, Montana, 90 miles away. About 15 years ago, a handful of diseased miners in Libby started suing the company, receiving small settlements – generally said to be less than $100,000 each – and agreeing to remain silent about the details of their suits. By the time Sullivan began advocating on behalf of clients in Libby in 1995, settlements had begun to creep up into the middle six figures – still barely enough to cover long-term medical costs. "In the course of developing a few early cases," he tells me, "the circle of victims just kept getting bigger and bigger." Sullivan and his partners, Jon Heberling and Allan McGarvey, have since settled 30 cases against W.R. Grace, have won three trials – including that of Les Skramstad – in front of juries , and have 80 suits pending, representing 200 individuals.

Of course, these suits have been put on indefinite hold by W.R. Grace's bankruptcy filing, and according to Sullivan, his clients are "frustrated and confused by the chasm between the law and justice." Those with claims pending against W.R. Grace, and those who only recently learned of the harm done to them by the company, now stand a better chance of getting a payoff from gaming machines in local casinos.

"It ought to scare the hell out of the whole town, but it don't. The town looks at us like were the villains. Like this was a nice little town and we come along and upset the apple cart. A lot of people think we're dreaming this up and taking out on this poor company. Well, if I strangled a single person – and that's what it amounts to if you've got asbestosis, you suffocate – I'd be in the penitentiary. And yet they do it to families, they do it to kids, and they get away with it." –Les Skramstad

Every weekday morning at 10, a group of men, mostly middle-aged or older, meet for coffee and conversation at a grimy little Mexican restaurant in downtown Libby called La Casa de Amigos. The restaurant doesn't open for business until 11, which suits the members of the coffee klatch just fine. Although they would deny it, their meetings are not open to the public, but are instead the preserve of Libby's dilapidated power elite. Among the regulars who gather beneath faded piñatas and walls hung with threadbare serapes are an assortment of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen, as well as Alan Stringer, the mayor, and a representative to the state legislature. They take wagers on who will pay for their 70-cent cups of coffee, and they trade gripes about the stigma that has blotted their town. "We're in dire straits," says Mike Munro, who runs a bar and restaurant called Treasure Mountain Casino, "and we've got no way of turning it around. The EPA has brought a different kind of cancer to this town." The men are scornful of the claims of those affected by asbestos-related disease. "There are people in town who are disappointed they haven't been diagnosed," one of them tells me. Another adds, "They thought they'd hit the lottery with this asbestos thing."

Since the EPA arrived in 1999, the town has fractured into a collection of outraged tribes. If Libby was, at one time, divided between blue-collar workers and managers – they lived in different neighborhoods, drank at different bars, prayed at different churches – now it is health, not wealth, that turns neighbors against one another.

Some, like the men in La Casa de Amigos, think the health hazards have been overblown by the shiftless residents looking to cash in at the expense of W.R. Grace. Many others have refused to be examined for asbestosis, not wanting to condone the hysteria. Businessmen worry about the local economy: Tales have circulated about out-of-towners calling the Chamber of Commerce to ask if it is safe to drive through Libby, even with the windows rolled up. And there are those who want nothing more from W.R. Grace than acknowledgment in the form of an apology, which has not been forthcoming.

Then there are Libby's sick, who believe they are being persecuted for staining the town's reputation and ruining its economy. According to Laura Sedler, Libby's sole clinical social worker, who runs support groups for people with asbestos-related diseases, "There's an old-fashioned term for what happened to victims in this community: shunning." In 1997, when Les Skramstad took W.R. Grace to court, his suit didn't receive a word of coverage in the local newspapers. The country courtroom was empty of spectators, except for a few widows who wanted to find out what had happened to their husbands. More recently, a woman whose husband had just died of asbestosis stood in the checkout line at the supermarket and listened to the clerk gripe, "I'm sick of hearing about asbestos. We won't be done with this until they all just die off."

But residents in Libby are not only coming to terms with the realization that they have been liberally sprinkled with toxic dust; they also seem to be experiencing a childlike sense of abandonment. In the past decade, a prosperous silver mine shut down, and the timber mill that was the largest local employer scaled back its operations by 80 percent. Two thousand jobs have been lost, prompting an exodus of young, able-bodied, and motivated residents. Libby is the seat of what is now the second-poorest county in the second-poorest state in the country. A quarter of the town's population lives below the poverty line; another quarter isn't doing much better.

It's hard not to wonder whether the remoteness of Libby, and the complacency and lack of wealth and lack of influence of its residents – compared, in particular, with that of a onetime Fortune 500 company that donated $764,618 to political campaigns during the 1990s – might have allowed the disaster to occur in the first place. Several hundred sick poor people don't make for much of a political constituency.

Still, the week after W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11, about 200 residents air their grievances to a U.S. senator, Max Baucus. Baucus embraces the role of crusader for Libby's wounded. Facing the crowd at a local theater, he takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, radiates Clintonesque empathy, and tells the audience, "What happened here is an outrage. We've got to get you justice. Grace can buy all the fancy lawyers they want, but I'm going to make sure you will be made whole." He listens to pleas for health-care facilities, pleas for criminal action against W.R. Grace, and, toward the end of the meeting, a plea from a young man, just diagnosed with scarring on his lungs, for Little League ball fields to replace the contaminated old diamonds. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived in Libby, Baucus is gone.

I mingle with the crowd after the meeting breaks up. I nod at Alan Stringer, who sat forlornly through the event in the back corner of the auditorium with his windbreaker zipped up. I spot Don Kaeding, with his oxygen tank, and Les Skramstad, in his loudest western shirt. Diane Keek is there, coughing dryly, and a few feet away stands Mike Powers, speaking vehemently about the need for aggressive cleanup of private homes. And I exchange a word or two with Jimmy Racicot, who has asbestosis and is a relative of the former governor. Or, as he tells me, in a joking and contemptuous tone, "He's related to me."

When I turn to leave the auditorium, I spot a plaque about the theater entrance, listing the donors who funded its renovation, and I read the familiar name W.R. Grace.

EXCERPT FROM THE DEPOSITION OF LES SKRAMSTAD, JANUARY 13, 1997
Q: I understand you have had some psychological problems?
A: Yes.
Q: Tell me about those.
A: I have a little problem once in a while justifying my existence on this planet.
Q: Since you were diagnosed with asbestosis, have you experienced an increase in the bouts of depression?
A: Somewhat, yes.
Q: And what do you think it is attributable to?
A: Lack of air.

The day before I am to leave Libby, I give myself a tour of the haunted landscape. I start at the base of Rainey Creek Road, the dirt road that miners took up Zonolite Mountain for 67 years. Chris Weis, of the EPA, told me he will no longer drive up the road without wearing respiratory equipment. Yet it remains open to the public. A few days earlier, I saw a young man motor up Rainey Creek on a dirt bike, kicking up a storm of dust. Barely a mile up the road, I pass a clearing littered with beer bottles – and littered, according to recent tests, with asbestos – where teenagers party. Farther up lies a pond, rimmed with high grasses and cattails. Geese float on it. The pond was constructed to capture and neutralize waste from the mine. A hawk glides overhead. Cottonwoods are reflected in the surface of the water. The day is thoroughly still.

Rising above the pond is a reddish-brown world of loose rock, hundreds of feet high, striped with late-season snow. This is the waste mountain: millions of tons of discarded ore – slag – brimming with some five billion pounds of asbestos. The state of Montana once gave W.R. Grace an award for reclaiming the mountain, for planting yellow sweet clover and seeding the tailings with grass and speckling it with pine saplings. But as far as I can tell, nothing is growing there.

I drive back down the road, past the site where, for years, ore was sifted into bins and moved across the Kootenai River on open conveyor belts, and then dumped into boxcars of the Burlington Northern Railroad and spread across the country. Then I drive back to town, past the oval track at Libby High School, home of the Libby Loggers. A lone pole-vaulter practices his stride. I continue my drive past W.R. Grace's old expansion plant downtown, where the ore once popped like popcorn. The storage shed is still standing. It looks like the weathered plank barn in an Old West theme park. Part of a rope dangles from a rafter.

If Libby were a fallow kingdom in some obscure myth, a hero would appear to restore the landscape and its people. Libby, being real, has no such luck. When the EPA decides it has scraped W.R. Grace's old facilities clean, it will leave town. But being clean is not the same as being healthy. W.R. Grace says it will cover the medical costs of residents with asbestos-related diseases in perpetuity, but give its bankruptcy proceedings, its word is no longer considered good in this town.

Justice for Libby is a fantasy beneath the western sky. Senator Baucus vows to do his best to convene a Congressional inquiry into what happened in Libby and whether anyone at W.R. Grace should be held criminally accountable; perhaps he'll succeed. There is a legal precedent: In 1993, three managers at Film Recovery Systems, a silver-extraction company in Chicago, pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges after a worker died of cyanide poisoning in 1983. But no one in Libby is counting on it. Late this past May, 32 townspeople, realizing their efforts to get legal redress against W.R. Grace were futile, filed suit against the state of Montana, saying the state had "conspired with Grace to conceal the results of ... studies and correspondence" related to the mine. The suit is the stuff of symbolism, which is not in short supply in Libby, and which will have to do for the moment.

Driving out of town the next day, I see a local named Richard Weeks standing on the side of the road, and I stop to say goodbye. Weeks claims to be a prophet – or, more specifically, as he tells me, "the seventh spirit of Moses." He refers me to the texts in the Bible that prove his visionary powers, and that establish Bob Dylan as the prophet Ezekiel. Weeks lives in a red-white-and-blue van parked by the river. He has half a mustache and half a beard, which may be the right look for a town as divided as Libby. "I've been thinking about this asbestos thing," he says. "Dylan has a song about a great flood that will rise up and wash away sin. The flood begins on the Day of Reckoning, which is coming anytime. Look," he says, pointing to the sky, "it's beginning to rain."

Indeed it is. I drive off and leave Weeks standing in the rain, waiting for a cleansing tide to find its way to Libby. I roll down my window and let the rain wash in. It feels good. And the air, the mountain air, tastes good, full of spring. I leave town and take a deep breath and hold it in my lungs. Breathe out. Breathe again.