The Accidental Activist 

Mike Crill spent his life fighting to right wrongs. Now he just wants to live—and die—in peace.

Mike Crill is a pain in the ass. He’s an alarm with a snooze button you can’t quite reach, a mosquito buzzing in your tent at night, the itch in the center of your back.

If you’re at all familiar with Libby’s history of vermiculite mining, the deadly asbestos-related diseases it caused, and W.R. Grace, the corporation that allegedly knew its mine was poisoning the town and did nothing about it, you’ve probably heard of Crill.

He is quoted in multiple news stories about Libby and he appears in Dust to Dust, a documentary about the town and its illness-stricken inhabitants. Time after time he’s raised red flags regarding problems with the Libby cleanup and pressed for fixes. He’s written countless letters to editors, politicians and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials. He phones anyone who will listen to him and many who won’t. His life has become focused on one thing: seeking justice for the poisoning of his family and the town of Libby. His single-minded pursuit of justice has made him a hero to some and a crank to many.

Almost unbelievably, this is not the first time he’s had his life hijacked by a cause he never asked for, but it may be the last. After having his life’s trajectory knocked off course by his efforts to right wrongs, after seeing his health ruined and a close family member die of asbestosis, Crill is nearly a broken man. You can see it in the dark circles under the 51-year-old’s deep-set blue eyes and you can hear it in his wheezes and coughs as he climbs a short flight of stairs.

Mike Crill is done fighting. Now he just wants to live his remaining days in peace.

Fighting city hall
Michael David Crill was born in 1955 in England, where his father, Harold Crill, served in the U.S. Air Force.

In 1966, after his father finished his military service, the Crills spent a short time living in Ohio, then loaded their belongings into a big Ford station wagon and headed for Libby, on the advice of Mike’s uncle William Crill, who had just gotten a job at W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mine.

Mike was 12 at the time, and he remembers being enchanted by the Montana lifestyle: the hunting, the fishing and the rugged mountains.

“It was a wonderful place,” he says now. “Those were good times.”

Mike grew up in Libby, growing close to the uncle who had lured the family there.

“He took me fishin’ and huntin’,” Mike says of the uncle whose life would in many ways tie him to Libby’s fate. “He did all the things my dad never did with me.”

Mike eventually started his own family in Libby, marrying his wife Dena in 1976. They had met just six months earlier, after Mike had finished a short stint in the Army.

That same year, Mike’s uncle William got him a job as a general laborer for Grace, which he held for one year, and which he believes is the likely source of his present-day lung problems. Later he worked in a local lumber mill.

In 1984, Mike and Dena moved to Coeur d’Alene, which city had hired Crill as its new fire hydrant repairman.

His reminiscences of that move echo the wonderment he felt upon first moving to Libby, only this time he was the father moving his two children, John and Sarah, to a scenic new place. He and Dena would own a home and property for the first time, in the form of a rustic cabin on 10 wooded acres just outside the city.

Mike was proud as hell of his job and the responsibility he carried.

“I made sure every fire hydrant was working and accessible,” he says.

He had everything he wanted, a family and a good job in a beautiful environment, but his life was about to veer off the tracks he had laid.

“One day I had it made,” he says. “The next day, my kids got sick.”

It was July 1987 when Dena, John and Sarah arrived at the city workshop to pick Mike up after work. They lingered at the shop for a few minutes and then headed home. According to Mike and Dena, when they got just a few miles from the shops, John started screaming about a headache and Sarah began vomiting. When they got home, Sarah had red splotches all over her torso.

After visiting bewildered doctors, the Crills called Poison Control and learned that their children’s symptoms were consistent with exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas often released from landfills.

The city shop where Mike worked was located across the street from a defunct landfill, and workers there had long complained about headaches they believed were caused by landfill fumes.

For a full year Crill says he tried to get his supervisors to address the apparent hydrogen sulfide contamination at the city shops, but little was done. The shops were tested and shown to be safe, but Crill felt the city was manipulating the tests. Eventually, he reported to another city building for work, refusing to go to the shop. In return the city gave him a three-day suspension, then fired him.

It was a turning point in Crill’s transformation from proud family man to chronic burr in the saddle.

A month after they fired him, Couer d’Alene city officials met the new Mike Crill. News photos from Sept. 13, 1988, show Crill and his daughter standing on the side of the road holding picket signs, Mike looking fit with a slight bulge of muscle under his T-shirt and a smile on his bearded face.

He spent several days out there picketing, with just his daughter for support. He also continued to talk with the city and county, trying to resolve a problem the city insisted didn’t exist.

And despite the ongoing battle, Crill wanted his job back. In October 1988 he appealed his firing before the city’s personnel board and lost. He also hired a lawyer to fight the city’s decision to deny him unemployment benefits. He won that case.

In the meantime, other city employees who worked at the same shop had quit over their concerns about exposure to toxic gas. In response, the city hired a health expert to determine whether or not the buildings were safe. The new study concluded that the buildings were unsafe for workers, and in February 1989 the Coeur d’Alene city council voted to abandon the contaminated shops.

“I’ve learned through this ordeal that you have to stick up for what’s right,” Crill told Coeur d’Alene’s Spokesman-Review after his vindication. “I just feel sorry for the guys down there that have worked for the city all their lives, and are afraid, because they’ve got house payments and kids to support, to take on the city.”

Crill, of course, had those concerns too, but he wasn’t any good at forgetting about problems, or letting others ignore them. He’s still not sure why.

“He’s just not the type of person to let things go,” his daughter Sarah offers.

Mike’s son John puts it even more succinctly: “He’s got balls.”

Ultimately, while his fighting spirit benefited his fellow workers in Coeur d’Alene, it’s hurt Mike and his family.

A Spokesman-Review story published after the city’s decision reports that the Crill family was barely scraping together a living after his firing, surviving on a part-time job Dena got with the Forest Service and donations from a local church.

In March 1989, after Mike’s suspicions had been validated, the city awarded him a $25,000 settlement in lieu of rehiring him. Five thousand of that went to his lawyer and another $1,000 went to cover past-due bills. With what he had left, Crill replaced his cabin with a trailer and bought equipment to start a landscaping business.

In July, the Spokesman-Review asked him how business was coming along.

“It’s coming. It’s going slow, but I’ve been doing a few houses, and I’ve got a few bids,” he told the newspaper.

But jobs came too slowly for the Crills. Mike’s business never made any money, he says, because he’d been “branded” as a troublemaker.

His voice shakes when he talks about the winter after his business failed, when he and his family spent a 20-below-zero night inside their trailer after the electricity had been turned off, staying up in shifts to make sure the wood stove kept burning.

The next day, Mike says, his father came out, packed the family up and took them back to Libby.

“It takes a lot for a man to admit he’s been licked,” Mike says.

Into the fire
When the Crills returned to Libby in 1990, things had changed dramatically. Although news stories that would reveal the full extent of Libby’s asbestos contamination were still almost a decade away, the evidence was already coming to light. Mike and Dena say they noticed it in the number of people who were suddenly attached to oxygen tanks.

One of the people feeling the effects of asbestos exposure was Mike’s uncle, William. At the time Mike and his family returned to Libby, William was trying to get doctors to diagnose his chronic respiratory problems as asbestosis. Although William had worked 17 years as a laborer for W.R. Grace, he was told that smoking cigarettes caused his problems.

To try and help him, Mike wrote to an attorney representing people diagnosed with asbestosis, asking the attorney to represent his uncle.

Mike’s efforts failed, but the activist in him was fired up again. This time, rather than picketing, he took up the role of watchdog. He scrutinized everything the EPA and Grace did, and managed to catch both in serious missteps.

He blew the whistle when Grace began tearing down its old screening plant, where the corporation had processed vermiculite before shipping. Grace, he pointed out to the EPA, was cleaning the site without taking precautions to prevent asbestos-tainted dust particles from entering the air, or doing anything to protect its workers. That one cost Grace a $500,000 EPA fine and earned Mike a $5,000 whistle-blower award.

In November 1994, when Crill saw that the processing site had been sold to a family named Parker for use as a residence, he tried to blow the whistle again, to no avail. A letter from the EPA, dated April 5, 1995, states that an inspection of the site “found no apparent violations of the Clean Air Act.” But four years later, in 1999, the family was evacuated from the property, which was found to be among the most contaminated in Libby. The EPA demolished the home and nearly everything in it.

“Nobody listened to him,” says Paul Peronard, an emergency response coordinator with the EPA and former manager of the Libby cleanup. “He saw the problems at the screening plant almost a decade before we did.”

But the screening plant screw-up was just the big-ticket item.

Peronard remembers that Mike was constantly contacting the EPA with day-to-day concerns about the cleanup, and that “He was active with all the work down there.”

And though Peronard generally appreciates what Crill has done, he thinks the events of Libby have taken a toll on the watchdog.

“Mike’s got some insights,” Peronard says, “but sometimes anger gets the best of him and clouds things.”

The price paid
When Mike and Dena first returned to Libby they took a class on hazardous materials cleanup, intending to go to work in that field. Mike and Dena began applying for jobs, and with each application, Mike says, the prospects would look good at first, but then he’d suddenly get turned down. He suspected, and confirmed, that the city of Coeur d’Alene was giving him terrible references. He sued the city again and won, but later lost on appeal.

In 1996, he managed to find a job as maintenance man for Virginia City, but was ultimately fired, for reasons he says were unfair. That time he didn’t fight. He says he became suicidal and “ended up in a nuthouse”—a veterans’ hospital in Sheridan, Wyo.

Mike says his anger over what happened in Coeur d’Alene, and at watching friends and family die of asbestosis, and from learning in April of 1999 that he had pleural plaque on his own lungs, a precursor to asbestosis, took him over and became an obsession.

These days, conversations with Crill inevitably swerve into the rut that his life has become—his anger about the poisoning of Libby, which he believes is ongoing. It’s apparent that there’s a Libby-focused monologue running constantly through his mind. When vocalized, it goes on for as long as you let it, his voice rising until it shakes.

Since leaving Virginia City Mike has been on antidepressants and unable to return to a regular job after having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. These days he and Dena live in a small, cement-floored apartment in Missoula, supporting themselves on Mike’s disability check. Mike’s health has gone downhill. The muscles from his Coeur d’Alene days are gone—his belly hangs over his belt, he wheezes when he tries to climb a flight of stairs. He rarely smiles. He and Dena have never owned another home since Coeur d’Alene. Mike spends most of his days—when he isn’t writing letters or making phone calls—drawing and playing guitar. Every two weeks he sees a psychiatrist to work on his anger issues.

His family says the stress nearly ruined him.

“We worry about him a lot,” Dena says. “It’s not healthy to be angry for so long.”

Hero or heckler?
People close to Libby’s ongoing struggle with its asbestos-tainted past have mixed views on Mike Crill and what he’s done for the community.

Gayla Benefield is certainly not a fan. Benefield is perhaps the best-known advocate for Libby’s asbestos victims. Like Crill, she has been featured in numerous articles about Libby, and in Dust to Dust. In March 2005, she was presented with the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization’s top award for her work helping asbestos victims. While Crill has worked at the periphery of the system, critiquing EPA cleanup efforts, Benefield has worked hard from the inside.

She is a member of Libby’s Community Advisory Group (CAG) and Technical Advisory Group (TAG), both funded with federal Superfund dollars and serving as liaisons between the EPA and Libby’s citizens.

“[Crill] really hasn’t been helpful here,” Benefield says. “He’s been more of a hindrance, because he’s uninformed.

“He did have some really good points at the onset,” she admits, noting that Crill was right when he first raised issues about the family that moved onto the screening plant site. “But you simply don’t write your impassioned pleas, you get out and you physically do something about it…We’re continually working every avenue of this and meeting with all the elected officials and whatnot…these people have jobs too, and they still manage to take the time, because they’re committed to getting something done and constructing something down here. And I guess that’s the biggest difference. All we’ve gotten is criticism from [Crill] for what we’ve tried to do.”

Asked if she’s surprised that some of those involved with Libby would end up depressed like Mike, she says, “Well, I know a lot more people…my whole family is affected by it. People have died in my family. Every month a friend of mine is getting sicker and sicker and…I guess it depends on your mental balance to start with. You learn to deal with it.”

But, she adds, “I guess if you’ve got 24-7 to sit and think about it, you could become [obsessed].”

Gordon Sullivan, the former consultant to Libby’s Technical Advisory Group, feels differently. Like Crill, Sullivan is frustrated with EPA cleanup efforts, and resigned over his concerns last year.

“Mike Crill has not only been correct in most of the things he’s pointed out on this cleanup site, but he’s also been consistent,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan notes that Mike’s work has brought multiple investigations to Libby, and that his hunches often turn out to be correct.

“You know what’s interesting about being an advocate in something of this magnitude?” Sullivan asks. “The people who you’ve got to be really suspicious about are people who always go out to please somebody else. In a debate of this magnitude, where science is a slippery slope, if you do not alienate half the public, you’re not doing your work.”

Sullivan also acknowledges the toll Mike’s activism has taken.

“I think it’s more guts than a person deserves to have,” he says, “because you put everything you have on the line for a moral position, and Mike has certainly done that. He’s taken his health, his welfare, his community standing, and he’s put all that on the line for something he really believes in. We just don’t find people like that in our society anymore.”

“What makes someone like Mike Crill?” he asks. “I don’t know, but I wish we could bottle it and sell it. Because we’d have a heck of a lot less problems in this world if people would just take a stand and stick by that stand, and say ‘No, this is wrong.’”

For his part, Mike sees himself as a “gladiator.”

“A gladiator gets in the ring, and when each fight’s over, he goes for the next guy,” Mike says.

He says that some of those who think he’s a hero realize the price he’s paid for fighting, but others don’t.

“They think I’m Superman,” he says.

As far as those who dismiss him as a crank, Crill points out all the times he’s been called that name, only to finally be proven right.

Raising hell
Mike Crill continues to raise hell about Libby.

“It’s my full-time job,” he says, shuffling through stacks of letters and documents he keeps filed in grocery bags at his Missoula apartment.

These days he’s focused on the trial of Grace executives accused of knowingly exposing workers to dangerous asbestos, and on his belief that Libby remains unsafe.

In February 2005, executives from Grace were indicted at the federal courthouse in Missoula for allegedly having information about the dangers asbestos posed to Libby residents and concealing it. Mike stood outside the courthouse with two signs hung over his shoulders, one facing his front, another on his back. On the front sign he’d pasted two photos: one of the memorial crosses for Libby’s victims set up in Libby in 2000, and another showing the same scene in 2005, with a lot of new crosses. On the back was the word “Guilty” followed by a list of reasons supporting that verdict. He held another sign that read, simply, “Libby is not safe.”

As the executives left the courthouse, Crill confronted them.

“How do you feel about that?” Crill says he asked them, pointing at the crosses. “Do you know any of these people?”

He admits now that he “kind of blew up a little bit. I shouldn’t have done that.”

Shortly afterward, lawyers for the Grace executives asked that the trial be moved out of Montana, due to the bias of its residents. Some, including Gayla Benefield, felt Mike was partially to blame for the legal maneuver, which eventually failed.

Besides the courthouse picket, Mike continues writing letters, raising issues over the safety of Libby. Most recently he’s been calling attention to studies, prompted by his letters and phone calls, showing that some trees in Libby have asbestos-contaminated bark.

Once again, Peronard says Crill was ahead of the EPA.

“He was the one urging us to look at the trees,” Peronard says. “That’s not somewhere you’d expect to find asbestos fibers.”

Mike says their presence proves the town is still tainted, but others point to EPA air monitors that say it’s not. This, of course, isn’t the first time Mike’s been told that government tests prove him wrong. In the past, in the end, it seems Mike has usually been proven right.

Happy trails
Mike’s uncle William Crill died Feb. 2, 2006, of cardiac arrest. Mike had accompanied him on a doctor visit last summer where he was finally diagnosed with asbestosis, which Mike says contributed to his demise.

The day his uncle died, Mike says, was the day he decided he’d had enough.

“That kind of put an end to 15 years of trying to seek justice,” he says. “I’ve been angry for so long. My life has been consumed. I’m trying to get away from it so I can have a life.”

On May 13, Dena will graduate from Missoula’s College of Technology, where she’s studied culinary arts and food management. After Dena graduates, Mike says, he’ll step away from Libby. He and Dena hope that she’ll be able to find work as a chef somewhere mellow, preferably a hot spring resort.

“I want him to find peace,” Dena says.

Then again, 20 years ago, it looked like Crill was back on track and ready to live a normal life with his family. “Happy Crill can afford a fresh start,” read the headline on the Spokesman-Review’s coverage of Crill’s $25,000 settlement from the city of Coeur d’Alene.

The story continued: “Mike Crill grinned. Holding his hand at arm’s length in front of his face he said, ‘I’m going to smoke a cigar that long.’ ”

“I went up against them all,” Crill told the reporter. “I went up against them all, and I won.”

Victory in the Libby struggle, if there can be such a thing, still seems a long way off. Crill is conceding the battle. He says his uncle’s death reminded him that his own life is running short.

“I don’t have much longer to live,” he says. “I just don’t want to spend the rest of my life being angry.”

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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