Killing Libby
Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis
Every weekday morning at 10, a group of men, mostly middle-aged or older, meet for coffee and conversation at a grimy little Mexican restaurant in downtown Libby called La Casa de Amigos. The restaurant doesn't open for business until 11, which suits the members of the coffee klatch just fine. Although they would deny it, their meetings are not open to the public, but are instead the preserve of Libby's dilapidated power elite. Among the regulars who gather beneath faded piñatas and walls hung with threadbare serapes are an assortment of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen, as well as Alan Stringer, the mayor, and a representative to the state legislature. They take wagers on who will pay for their 70-cent cups of coffee, and they trade gripes about the stigma that has blotted their town. "We're in dire straits," says Mike Munro, who runs a bar and restaurant called Treasure Mountain Casino, "and we've got no way of turning it around. The EPA has brought a different kind of cancer to this town." The men are scornful of the claims of those affected by asbestos-related disease. "There are people in town who are disappointed they haven't been diagnosed," one of them tells me. Another adds, "They thought they'd hit the lottery with this asbestos thing."

Since the EPA arrived in 1999, the town has fractured into a collection of outraged tribes. If Libby was, at one time, divided between blue-collar workers and managers – they lived in different neighborhoods, drank at different bars, prayed at different churches – now it is health, not wealth, that turns neighbors against one another.

Some, like the men in La Casa de Amigos, think the health hazards have been overblown by the shiftless residents looking to cash in at the expense of W.R. Grace. Many others have refused to be examined for asbestosis, not wanting to condone the hysteria. Businessmen worry about the local economy: Tales have circulated about out-of-towners calling the Chamber of Commerce to ask if it is safe to drive through Libby, even with the windows rolled up. And there are those who want nothing more from W.R. Grace than acknowledgment in the form of an apology, which has not been forthcoming.

Then there are Libby's sick, who believe they are being persecuted for staining the town's reputation and ruining its economy. According to Laura Sedler, Libby's sole clinical social worker, who runs support groups for people with asbestos-related diseases, "There's an old-fashioned term for what happened to victims in this community: shunning." In 1997, when Les Skramstad took W.R. Grace to court, his suit didn't receive a word of coverage in the local newspapers. The country courtroom was empty of spectators, except for a few widows who wanted to find out what had happened to their husbands. More recently, a woman whose husband had just died of asbestosis stood in the checkout line at the supermarket and listened to the clerk gripe, "I'm sick of hearing about asbestos. We won't be done with this until they all just die off."

But residents in Libby are not only coming to terms with the realization that they have been liberally sprinkled with toxic dust; they also seem to be experiencing a childlike sense of abandonment. In the past decade, a prosperous silver mine shut down, and the timber mill that was the largest local employer scaled back its operations by 80 percent. Two thousand jobs have been lost, prompting an exodus of young, able-bodied, and motivated residents. Libby is the seat of what is now the second-poorest county in the second-poorest state in the country. A quarter of the town's population lives below the poverty line; another quarter isn't doing much better.

It's hard not to wonder whether the remoteness of Libby, and the complacency and lack of wealth and lack of influence of its residents – compared, in particular, with that of a onetime Fortune 500 company that donated $764,618 to political campaigns during the 1990s – might have allowed the disaster to occur in the first place. Several hundred sick poor people don't make for much of a political constituency.

Still, the week after W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11, about 200 residents air their grievances to a U.S. senator, Max Baucus. Baucus embraces the role of crusader for Libby's wounded. Facing the crowd at a local theater, he takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, radiates Clintonesque empathy, and tells the audience, "What happened here is an outrage. We've got to get you justice. Grace can buy all the fancy lawyers they want, but I'm going to make sure you will be made whole." He listens to pleas for health-care facilities, pleas for criminal action against W.R. Grace, and, toward the end of the meeting, a plea from a young man, just diagnosed with scarring on his lungs, for Little League ball fields to replace the contaminated old diamonds. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived in Libby, Baucus is gone.

I mingle with the crowd after the meeting breaks up. I nod at Alan Stringer, who sat forlornly through the event in the back corner of the auditorium with his windbreaker zipped up. I spot Don Kaeding, with his oxygen tank, and Les Skramstad, in his loudest western shirt. Diane Keek is there, coughing dryly, and a few feet away stands Mike Powers, speaking vehemently about the need for aggressive cleanup of private homes. And I exchange a word or two with Jimmy Racicot, who has asbestosis and is a relative of the former governor. Or, as he tells me, in a joking and contemptuous tone, "He's related to me."

When I turn to leave the auditorium, I spot a plaque about the theater entrance, listing the donors who funded its renovation, and I read the familiar name W.R. Grace.

Q: I understand you have had some psychological problems?
A: Yes.
Q: Tell me about those.
A: I have a little problem once in a while justifying my existence on this planet.
Q: Since you were diagnosed with asbestosis, have you experienced an increase in the bouts of depression?
A: Somewhat, yes.
Q: And what do you think it is attributable to?
A: Lack of air.