It wasn’t exactly three wise men following a star, but when Gov. Judy Martz and her advisors made the trip to Libby to announce they would support a Superfund designation for the town and seek an expedited cleanup, local residents felt like Christmas came early. “As far as I’m concerned, Santa Claus has already arrived in Lincoln Country,” said Les Skramstad, one of hundreds of Libby residents sickened or killed by asbestos-caused diseases from past vermiculite mining and processing operations. It’s a sign of the strange times in Montana—which most of the nation thinks of as a pristine environment—that a Superfund designation would ever be thought of as a gift. But for the citizen activists whose efforts culminated in the Superfund designation, it was a damn good way to end the year.
The long and twisted tale of Libby’s asbestos tragedy is but the latest in the state’s big book of grim mining stories. Once again, as in Butte, Anaconda, Milltown, and dozens of other sites, regulatory breakdowns and corporate greed combined to leave a toxic legacy that continue to poison the land and its people long after the mining dollars are gone. While the money rolled in, everyone looked the other way. In the Butte mines, people sickened and died from breathing silica. At the Anaconda smelter, it was the arsenic that got you, and everybody knew it. In Libby, it was tremolite, a particularly deadly form of asbestos laced throughout the vermiculite, which floated through the air and found its way into the lungs of workers and their families.
Just as in Butte and Anaconda, it was only after the mining and processing operations shut down that the story of the deadly exposure and its horrific toll became widely known. A riveting Seattle Intelligencer story by veteran investigative reporter Andrew Schneider blew the top off the Libby scandal and drew the nation’s attention to the plight of this small Montana town. An exhaustive examination of medical records, lawsuits, and death certificates pointed the finger at the operations of the W.R. Grace Company, which was literally in the process of walking away from the site while requesting a refund of unspent reclamation bonds. The evidence was damning. The deaths, the illnesses, and the contamination of the land by mining wastes were undeniable.
And yet, some still sought to deny them. Sen. Conrad Burns (R–Mont.), for instance, actually tried to blame trial lawyers for Libby’s problems while attempting to slide legislation favorable to the W.R. Grace Company through Congress—until he was exposed in his skullduggery by a statewide television ad campaign that almost cost him his reelection. Or Gov. Judy Martz who, in spite of knowing firsthand what horrors mining left behind in Butte, doggedly took the side of industry, holding meetings with Grace executives well before she ever went to Libby to talk with the victims. And former Gov. Marc Racicot, who blithely left his hometown behind in a cloud of deadly asbestos while he danced away to Florida and then Washington on the coattails of the Bush campaign. Considering Racicot was the attorney general and governor during the entire Libby end-game—his Justice Department was aware of the Libby lawsuits and his administration was responsible for “reclamation” oversight—it seems even more egregious that in his positions of power, he chose to do nothing.
Against this overwhelming Goliath of corporate and political power, Gayla Benefield and her neighbors seemed a tiny David indeed. But these true heroes of Libby, many having lost friends and family members to asbestosis or bearing the illness themselves, relentlessly fought back. They flew to Washington to testify before Congress. They came to the Legislature and sought an audience with the governor. Wherever and whenever they could, they told the heart-rending stories—and they asked only one thing: to do what was right, get Libby cleaned up and make reparations to the victims and their families.
Thanks to their efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency began emergency operations and day-by-day, the evidence mounted on the side of the citizens. In a time when Montana politicians routinely derided “federal intervention,” Paul Peronard, the EPA’s point man on the Libby site, earned the respect of the town’s citizens as he handled the difficult task of performing triage at the deadly site, including the removal of asbestos-riddled tailings from the high school track. Nor did Libby’s citizens stand alone. Fellow Montanans, shocked by the toll of death and illness, repulsed by the callous, devious corporate actions, and outraged at the political machinations, added their voices to the fray. Attorney General Mike McGrath, in a detailed review of the state’s options, undeniably concluded that Superfund designation was the state’s best choice.
In the end, as we now know, it was the citizens who “won,”if that’s what you call it. It was the citizens who led and the politicians who followed. It was the citizens who demanded accountability and justice, and eventually cowed and shamed their industrial-strength opposition into admitting the problems and accepting the inevitable solution.
And so, just before Christmas, Governor Martz traveled to Libby, and made a surprise announcement before stunned citizens that she would support the Superfund designation. Significantly, in announcing her decision to use the “silver bullet,” fast-track option to speed the cleanup, the governor said:
“I have come to believe that the known risks of today outweigh the unknown risks of tomorrow.” On this count, as a growing mountain of evidence supports, the governor is absolutely correct. As a recent statewide poll found, Montanans want to know how Libby fell through the health and environmental regulatory cracks, and who knew what and when about “the known risks” of the Grace operations. If the governor is serious about her newfound knowledge, she could do us all a favor by launching just such an investigation in the coming year and maybe, just maybe, protecting us from further “industry-friendly” regulatory debacles that are even now creating the “unknown risks of tomorrow.”
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.