Killing Libby
Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis
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