Killing Libby
Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis
The day before I am to leave Libby, I give myself a tour of the haunted landscape. I start at the base of Rainey Creek Road, the dirt road that miners took up Zonolite Mountain for 67 years. Chris Weis, of the EPA, told me he will no longer drive up the road without wearing respiratory equipment. Yet it remains open to the public. A few days earlier, I saw a young man motor up Rainey Creek on a dirt bike, kicking up a storm of dust. Barely a mile up the road, I pass a clearing littered with beer bottles – and littered, according to recent tests, with asbestos – where teenagers party. Farther up lies a pond, rimmed with high grasses and cattails. Geese float on it. The pond was constructed to capture and neutralize waste from the mine. A hawk glides overhead. Cottonwoods are reflected in the surface of the water. The day is thoroughly still.

Rising above the pond is a reddish-brown world of loose rock, hundreds of feet high, striped with late-season snow. This is the waste mountain: millions of tons of discarded ore – slag – brimming with some five billion pounds of asbestos. The state of Montana once gave W.R. Grace an award for reclaiming the mountain, for planting yellow sweet clover and seeding the tailings with grass and speckling it with pine saplings. But as far as I can tell, nothing is growing there.

I drive back down the road, past the site where, for years, ore was sifted into bins and moved across the Kootenai River on open conveyor belts, and then dumped into boxcars of the Burlington Northern Railroad and spread across the country. Then I drive back to town, past the oval track at Libby High School, home of the Libby Loggers. A lone pole-vaulter practices his stride. I continue my drive past W.R. Grace's old expansion plant downtown, where the ore once popped like popcorn. The storage shed is still standing. It looks like the weathered plank barn in an Old West theme park. Part of a rope dangles from a rafter.

If Libby were a fallow kingdom in some obscure myth, a hero would appear to restore the landscape and its people. Libby, being real, has no such luck. When the EPA decides it has scraped W.R. Grace's old facilities clean, it will leave town. But being clean is not the same as being healthy. W.R. Grace says it will cover the medical costs of residents with asbestos-related diseases in perpetuity, but give its bankruptcy proceedings, its word is no longer considered good in this town.

Justice for Libby is a fantasy beneath the western sky. Senator Baucus vows to do his best to convene a Congressional inquiry into what happened in Libby and whether anyone at W.R. Grace should be held criminally accountable; perhaps he'll succeed. There is a legal precedent: In 1993, three managers at Film Recovery Systems, a silver-extraction company in Chicago, pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges after a worker died of cyanide poisoning in 1983. But no one in Libby is counting on it. Late this past May, 32 townspeople, realizing their efforts to get legal redress against W.R. Grace were futile, filed suit against the state of Montana, saying the state had "conspired with Grace to conceal the results of ... studies and correspondence" related to the mine. The suit is the stuff of symbolism, which is not in short supply in Libby, and which will have to do for the moment.

Driving out of town the next day, I see a local named Richard Weeks standing on the side of the road, and I stop to say goodbye. Weeks claims to be a prophet – or, more specifically, as he tells me, "the seventh spirit of Moses." He refers me to the texts in the Bible that prove his visionary powers, and that establish Bob Dylan as the prophet Ezekiel. Weeks lives in a red-white-and-blue van parked by the river. He has half a mustache and half a beard, which may be the right look for a town as divided as Libby. "I've been thinking about this asbestos thing," he says. "Dylan has a song about a great flood that will rise up and wash away sin. The flood begins on the Day of Reckoning, which is coming anytime. Look," he says, pointing to the sky, "it's beginning to rain."

Indeed it is. I drive off and leave Weeks standing in the rain, waiting for a cleansing tide to find its way to Libby. I roll down my window and let the rain wash in. It feels good. And the air, the mountain air, tastes good, full of spring. I leave town and take a deep breath and hold it in my lungs. Breathe out. Breathe again.