Bigfork cartoonist and wildlife painter Elmer Sprunger was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, and is the most recent of at least 50 people to sue the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company for exposing them to asbestos.
Among stacks of magazines, newspapers and books cluttered around his home, 87-year-old Bigfork resident Elmer Sprunger has no trouble finding a half-dozen cartoons stashed in one of his many filing cabinets. The stack is the illustrated history of his life, each cartoon drawn in Sprunger’s signature jaunty style. One shows him and a dozen other young men in military barracks, playing catch, conversing the day after Germany surrendered to the Allies, as one man in the foreground counts the days until they return home. There’s another he drew to promote a trail through the Swan Range; the path is now named after him. And there are a few that humorously depict life in the Flathead, cartoons that once graced the employee bulletin board at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company (CFAC) when Sprunger worked there as a sign painter more than 30 years ago.
The majority of the cartoons in his house, however, are from more than 20 years of freelance work for the Bigfork Eagle. Sprunger still delivers the weekly images depicting Montana life and progressive politics, but earlier this year he says he began feeling tired and having difficulty breathing.
“It was a rough winter,” he says.
In April, Sprunger’s doctor discovered 2 quarts of fluid in his left lung and sent him directly to the hospital. One week later, a test confirmed what his doctor feared: Sprunger has mesothelioma, a disease commonly associated with asbestos exposure.
Sprunger is now the most recent of more than 50 former CFAC workers who believe they were exposed to asbestos at the aluminum plant, and who are suing the various companies that owned the plant or manufactured the asbestos used in it. He believes he contracted the disease while working at CFAC from 1959 to 1974.
“When this happens, you look back and see where you worked,” he says.
In Montana, mesothelioma—cancer of the lung lining—is most often associated with Libby, a town exposed to carcinogenic asbestos dust for decades. But Sprunger never spent any significant time there. In fact, his most notable connection to Libby was when he was commissioned to draw cartoons for Kalispell attorney Jon Heberling several years ago as exhibits in a Libby asbestos case.
One of them, Sprunger says, showed managers of W.R. Grace & Co. holding up a rug, and others sweeping garbage under it. Another depicted an annual picnic for retirees of Grace’s vermiculite mine in Libby, from which Libby’s asbestos came from. In the cartoon, tables for the picnic are empty and set up in a graveyard.
When he learned of his illness, Sprunger called Heberling, and on April 11 he filed a civil suit against the various companies that have owned CFAC, starting with the Anaconda Company and ending with its current operator, Switzerland-based Glencore AG. His suit, which was originally filed in Flathead County District Court and recently moved to Cascade County, alleges the companies knowingly exposed him to the asbestos fibers. It also names W.R. Grace, the original asbestos supplier, as a defendant.
Sprunger is one of at least eight former CFAC workers who have filed suits in Flathead County since 2000 alleging asbestos exposure at the aluminum plant. There are more cases filed in Cascade County, including one with 28 plaintiffs, and another with 11, both of which are ongoing.
Of the Flathead cases, five have been settled and dismissed. The terms of the settlements are not public, and the plaintiffs have agreed, as a condition of the settlement, not to speak about their suits. Some of the settled suits name as many as 56
defendants, including Owens Corning and Mobil Oil. All of the settlements were reached in the fall of 2006.
Haley Beaudry, a spokesperson for CFAC, declined to comment on the cases because of those still pending. Likewise, lawyers for the various plaintiffs declined to comment, as did the plaintiffs themselves—except Sprunger.
Since its founding in 1952, CFAC has been one of the Flathead Valley’s largest employers. It currently employs 140 people.
“In a lot of ways, it was a nice place to work,” Sprunger concedes.
During Sprunger’s years at CFAC, one of his jobs was painting identification numbers onto crucibles—large metal pots used to contain molten aluminum alloys. To paint the numbers on the pots, Sprunger would get a few men to help pull aside large, thick, dusty blankets that covered them.
“I would paint those numbers on, and I did it with yellow paint,” he says. “When I put it on, it would go ‘sizzle, pop, pop,’ and then turn orange as it baked on.”
The dusty blankets were used to help the containers retain their heat so they wouldn’t crack or warp when the next batch of alloy was poured into them, Sprunger says. They were woven from asbestos, one of the only fireproof fibers in the world.
“They said that’s the only thing that would work,” says Sprunger.
Among the workers, Sprunger says, “There was some word about asbestos, some doubts about it health-wise, but nobody seemed to be too sure. But I’m pretty sure everybody in charge knew what was what.”
He says he believes his superiors knew about the dangers because, “Those people stayed away from it. You didn’t see them around. That’s something that occurs to you afterward.”
Springer is also suspicious of employees being subjected to other harmful chemicals at CFAC. He recalls specifically the effects the plant appeared to have on the environment.
“They had a flower bed as you come in around front,” he says. “Once in a while you’d get a change in the weather and the wind would come out of the canyon…”
The wind, coming from the east rather than the west would cause air from CFAC to blow across the flowerbeds.
“The next morning,” he says, “all the flowers would be dead, but before noon they’d go to the green house in Kalispell and have it all planted again. That kind of tells you how they operated up there.”
While Sprunger cites anecdotal evidence to explain why he believes the owners of CFAC knew he and others were being poisoned, court documents from other CFAC asbestos lawsuits appear to establish a more concrete case.
For instance, a Montana Supreme Court case, Orr v. State of Montana, established 1956 as the year in which the carcinogenic dangers of asbestos were well known to U.S. industry.
According to the plaintiffs in some of the CFAC cases, documents from a 1986 internal inspection of the CFAC facility show evidence of widespread asbestos contamination. Furthermore, the documents suggest company officials did nothing about the contamination at the time, and did not start warning workers at the plant of possible asbestos contamination until 2000.
As for Sprunger, once he was diagnosed with mesothelioma he had an operation, which, he says, seared the lining of his damaged lung and should slow down the buildup of fluid.
With the cancer limited to his left lung, Sprunger says it’s not an immediate threat to his life.
But, he says, when he was diagnosed with his cancer, “I started to think about people handling those blankets all the time.”
Others did more than handle the blankets. In depositions from the other CFAC cases, former workers like Fred O. Tobiason and Larry C. Bump discuss working with asbestos fiber rope and asbestos-laden mortars. Both men have settled their cases.
“I think there’s going to be quite a few more people that have this asbestos problem,” Sprunger says.
Sprunger isn’t just the most recent former CFAC employee to file a suit—he’s also the most prominent member of the community affected by it.
Dale Burk worked with Sprunger for a short time as CFAC’s communications director, and went on to become a reporter at the Missoulian. After writing for national news media, he started the Stoneydale Press in Stevensville in 1976, which has published several books on Rocky Mountain art. In 1994, he published a book of cartoons by Sprunger, The Eagle’s Eye.
“He speaks his mind and he draws his mind,” Burk says, noting many of Sprunger’s cartoons dealt with environmental politics. “His ethics are profound… When he sees the polluters and destroyers of the land, he’s been very consistent in speaking out.”
But Burk says it’s Sprunger’s wildlife paintings that really showcase his talent.
“I’d put him among the very best of wildlife artists in at least this century,” he says. “If Elmer had the inclination to go to the big city, he would have achieved national fame with any of the wildlife artists of this country.”
Now, due to the mesothelioma, Sprunger says, “I don’t have the steam I need to work, and I have more commissions for paintings than I’ve ever had.”
Still, he adds, “I haven’t missed a cartoon yet. I hope not to.”