Can America's Most Toxic Town Be Saved?
Activist resident Gayla Benefield visits the town cemetery
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein
In 2001, I interviewed a man named Alan Stringer, a former superintendent of the mine and W.R. Grace's last remaining employee in Libby. He struck me as anxious and frustrated. He had been returned to the town for an unenviable public-relations role, and the tortuous explanations he offered on behalf of the company came across as wan and half-hearted. I was somewhat saddened when I learned, in 2005, that Stringer had been named as a defendant in a federal prosecution of W.R. Grace and former executives and managers on charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, violation of the Clean Air Act, and obstruction of justice – essentially, of knowingly contaminating Libby and covering it up. The prosecution, though, faced overwhelming challenges. W.R. Grace, which entered bankruptcy in 2001, nonetheless spent $160 million in its defense and litigated elements of the case up to the Supreme Court. There were years of pretrial delays. Before he could face a jury, Stringer died of cancer.

When the case was finally tried, in 2009, W.R. Grace's team of nearly three dozen lawyers raised questions about whether the vermiculite was actually asbestos and whether the diseased residents had been largely misdiagnosed. They convinced the judge to curtail the testimony of the EPA agent who had first discovered the contamination, and discredited one of the prosecution's lead witnesses, a former W.R. Grace executive who claimed the company was fully aware of the dangers. Following 11 weeks of testimony, the jury returned a not-guilty verdict after less than two days of deliberation.

"Everybody here was really disappointed by the verdict," Doug Roll, a former Marine who is currently Libby's mayor, told me. "No – that's not a strong enough word. With all the damage that company did, to see them get off scot-free just made people mad."

Roll, who has been mayor since 2009, runs an auto-repair shop down the street from Libby High School. The sign on his office door reads repair and despair. The sentiment is apt. If people in Libby had hoped for satisfaction from the justice system, what they got instead was a reminder of their own powerlessness. As Roll is intent on pointing out, though, asbestos isn't Libby's only problem, or even its most pressing one. "There's just no jobs here, nothing," he said. The timber industry, which once employed thousands in the area, has all but shut down. Lincoln County, which includes Libby, has Montana's highest unemployment rate, at 18.1 percent, compared with the state average of 6.5 percent. Close to one in five residents lives below the poverty line. "My best friend left a few months ago to work in the oil fields in North Dakota," the mayor said. "I probably know 10 guys who've gone there."

I asked Roll whether Libby could ever be made whole. "We've been down and beaten up," he said. "We've been angry so long it's hard to maintain the anger. Maybe things are going to turn around. Closure for us – that's probably 30 or 40 years down the road, when the town is all cleaned up and we don't have any more sick people."

That can seem like a fantasy, belonging to another life, another place. Although the EPA has assured residents it will not leave Libby before the cleanup is done, the agency's early drafts of toxicity studies of Libby asbestos – attempting to measure how much exposure to the fiber will put human risk at health – have suggested to some that even very low levels of exposure are potentially hazardous. This is a problem for the entire country – insulation containing Libby asbestos is estimated to be in 30 million homes in the U.S. – but it poses a particular threat to the existence of the town. As one person told me, "Maybe Libby can never be clean enough to be safe."

During my return, I often thought of a man I interviewed back in 2001. He was in his early thirties and in obvious distress. He had been diagnosed with lung abnormalities, and feared for his future. He lived in the woods outside town. The woods, he said, were the only place he ever felt he belonged. Hunting was his passion: He'd trained himself in taxidermy, and his handiwork – bighorn sheep, black bear – stared out at us as we spoke. He had a newborn son, he told me, and he dreamed of teaching him about the woods, of going hunting with him one day. But now he worried it would never happen.

I didn't remember this man until I went back to Libby this year. I asked around, but wasn't able to find him – after all, a long time has passed. I have young sons of my own now, so I think I can better understand what he must have been going through. The woods of western Montana would be a rare place for a child to grow up, for a man to grow old.

I hope he's doing well, wherever he is.