Killing Libby
Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis
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