Can America's Most Toxic Town Be Saved?
Activist resident Gayla Benefield visits the town cemetery
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein

"The town is the site of a toxic contamination that is unprecedented in American history," wrote Mark Levine of Libby, Montana, in his 2001 'Men's Journal' article "Killing Libby." At the time, environmental investigators had only begun to tap the full extent of the problem, but the culprit was clear: The processing of vermiculite ore from a local mine had released huge plumes of asbestos into the air for decades. Miners were dying early; their families were showing up at doctors' offices with persistent coughs. "An astounding one-third of Libby's residents are believed to have contracted asbestos-related lung disease," wrote Levine. Adding to the tragedy was the belief that W.R. Grace, the company that had operated the mine since 1963, had long known about the hazards. As one EPA scientist said at the time: "This was deliberate murder." Eleven years later, Levine returned to see what had become of the troubled town.

There is mountain time and there is human time, and somewhere in the purgatorial provinces between them sits Libby, Montana, a town of 2,600 that is ground zero in the vastest story of toxic contamination in U.S. history. The remoteness of this place, 110 miles west of Glacier National Park, is as striking as the severe beauty of the surrounding Cabinet Mountains. Libby can come across, at first glance, as a kind of rough-hewn Shangri-la, cut off from the upheavals of the world beyond its valley. Eleven years ago, I traveled there at a moment when it was beginning to grapple with the extent to which a local vermiculite mine, operated from 1923 to 1990, had doused the town with a virulent form of asbestos being blamed for the deaths of more than 200 residents.

I returned this winter to take stock of how the town and its people had progressed – if that's the right word – during the interim. The town I encountered in 2001 was a place of fear and intense division; many people seemed to blame their problems on a woman named Gayla Benefield. Benefield had been agitating for 27 years to bring attention to the contamination that she claimed had killed her parents and many others in Libby. I called her as soon as I returned, and to my surprise she suggested that we meet in a public place. We settled into a booth at Antler's Restaurant, and she started in chattily. "Don passed away," she said, filling me in on people I had previously interviewed. "Mike went on oxygen, and went downhill quick. His kids moved him away. Jimmy died of cancer. And Les, of course" – she took a sip from her mug of Diet Coke – "well, you missed the greatest funeral ever in Libby." For years, Benefield had received threats and anonymous calls urging her to leave town; old friends saw her in the supermarket and walked the other way. "Oh, all that's changed," she said. "Every once in a while people even come over and thank me."

Benefield's efforts brought an emergency-response team from the Environmental Protection Agency to Libby in November 1999. The EPA confirmed that Libby's vermiculite ore was laced with naturally occurring asbestos fibers, and that for years the mine had released a cloud of as much as 5,000 pounds of asbestos each day. The agency found the stuff everywhere: Piles of contaminated material had been kept at the edge of Little League ball fields, where children played in it; the high school track was surfaced with it; people collected it from depots in town and used it to improve the soil in their gardens; the forests where people hunted, fished, and gathered firewood were so contaminated that asbestos was braided into tree bark. After a federal agency administered screening, more than a thousand residents learned they had scarring on their lungs – an early sign of chronic, debilitating, irreversible asbestos-related disease. Benefield herself was one of 30 members of her extended family to be diagnosed with lung abnormalities. Libby had suffered a contagion.

Many residents refused to believe it. Although documents suggested that W.R. Grace, the conglomerate that owned the mine, had long been aware of the asbestos, the company had been a major benefactor of the community, and loyalty ran high. People who claimed to be ill were accused of malingering. In 2001, Benefield had introduced me to a friend of hers named Les Skramstad. Skramstad was forthright, charismatic, and a great storyteller, despite the fact that he gasped for air as he spoke. As a young man he had worked at the mine for just under three years, beginning in 1959. Not long before I met him, his family had been screened for lung abnormalities. "If it had just took the lives of us miners, that would have been bad enough," he had told me. "But I carried it home and gave it to my wife and three of our five children." Skramstad was one of the few locals who fought W.R. Grace in court and won. At the time, he was widely derided for inventing his illness to scam the company.

"The people who said we were blowing this out of proportion, they're quiet now," Benefield said. "There's hardly a soul in Libby at this point who doesn't have a friend, relative, or neighbor who's been afflicted by this." Indeed, for Benefield, Libby is a cautionary tale about the consequences of trusting too much – in a company whose profit motive might outweigh its commitment to safety and in government regulators who get too cozy with the industry they're supposed to patrol. Now 68, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer two years ago. She said her respiratory health is good – that of her husband and 47-year-old daughter, less so. She has ceased her activism. "I'm done. The real victory was letting them know I was too damn stubborn to kill." Les Skramstad contracted mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer almost invariably associated with asbestos, and died in January 2007.