Killing Libby
Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis

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