Unsanctioned sickness 

How the U.S. government plans to "heal" Libby

“Hey, Norita, where’s my stash of vermiculite?” Les Skramstad hollers to his wife from the kitchen of his Libby home. Skramstad, a wiry fellow hobbled by asbestosis, eventually showcases a jar of vermiculite containing Libby’s tremolite asbestos. Years of exposure to the gray grains in this jar is slowly killing Skramstad. His wife and two of his children have also been diagnosed with asbestosis, he says, though their disease isn’t currently as advanced as his own.

On the other side of town, Gayla and David Benefield sit at their own kitchen table, sipping coffee. Gayla watched both of her parents die from asbestos-related disease. She and her husband both have asbestos-related diseases, and her youngest nephew has just been diagnosed at age 42. Now she’s worried about her grandchildren, nine of whom went to Libby’s Plummer Elementary School, where, she says, the playground was full of asbestos mine tailings, “the worst of the worst.”

“I realized one day that I couldn’t reassure them that they wouldn’t die of the disease,” she says.

Skramstad says he and the Benefields have reached settlements with W.R. Grace, the mining company that knowingly exposed many in the Libby community to asbestos, resulting in more than 200 asbestos-triggered deaths so far. But now that W.R. Grace has declared bankruptcy, who will compensate Libby’s other victims?

Last month, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) began circulating a compromise proposal to set up a fund for asbestos victims. Earlier such attempts stalled when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle were unable to agree on a fund of $140 billion (Frist’s proposal) or $145 billion (Daschle’s proposal). Feinstein’s draft bill would authorize $140 billion for relief, with a possible additional $4 billion if compensation trusts are included in the plan. A draft of the bill—which hasn’t been officially proposed yet—provided by Feinstein’s press office showed $93.75 billion of the fund coming from defendants dealing with asbestos claims such as W.R. Grace and Halliburton. The other $46.25 billion, according to the plan, would come from insurers.

Yet while congressional leaders wrangle over a dollar amount, advocates in Libby such as Gayla Benefield see a larger problem with the legislation—namely, most of Libby’s approximately 1,100 people with asbestos-related diseases wouldn’t qualify for compensation under its stipulations.

“Under the bill’s criteria, less than 5 percent of our asbestos population would be eligible,” Gayla says. “When we went to Washington, D.C., with 125 people with asbestos-related disease, 71 percent of them would not meet the criteria for that bill. Out of that, four of those [non-qualifying] people are now dead.”

The reason most of Libby’s asbestos victims would not qualify, says Pat Cohan, clinical coordinator of Libby’s Clinic for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD), is that the bill, relying on radiology results, recognizes only the “traditional” form of asbestosis, which is caused by chrysotile fibers. Most of the asbestos sick in Libby suffer from a different kind of fiber: tremolite.

Dr. Vikas Kapil, a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine with the federal Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) in Atlanta, says, “The fiber itself is different. Tremolite fibers are detected at higher concentrations in autopsy lung tissue, so if you have an asbestos worker that died from asbestos-related lung disease, even if they worked in a mine that primarily dealt with chrysotile asbestos and only very small amounts of tremolite asbestos, what you’ll often find is that they’ll have higher concentrations of tremolite fibers in their lungs.”

Kapil says there are also reasons to believe that tremolite may be more damaging to the lungs than chrysotile fibers, but that more research is needed before such a statement can be considered scientific fact.

Despite the difference between the two fibers, none of the asbestos victim compensation bills so far introduced (none of which have passed), including the compromise proposal currently being circulated by Sen. Feinstein, have included standards for compensation based not only on chrysotile fibers, but on tremolite fibers as well.

If Feinstein’s bill passes, says the CARD Clinic’s Cohan, “what would happen is that about 70 percent of the people who have already died of the Libby asbestos disease would not have even qualified [for compensation], because it looks and acts differently.”

Kapil says a “different look” of the disease in Libby isn’t certain at this point.

“That’s something we’re very interested in,” he says. “We’ve certainly heard that issue raised by physicians in Libby, so [ATSDR] is trying to look at that very carefully right now and we have a couple studies going on specifically on the health effects of tremolite asbestos.”

Cohan believes the CARD clinic is on the path to proving that there is a different form of asbestos disease affecting Libby, and those exposed to Libby asbestos elsewhere. From Sept. 15–17, the clinic will gather scientists and doctors for a “retrospective chest X-ray analysis,” which should offer an overview of the exposures of those who worked at the Libby mines.

“That’s new research that’s never been done before,” Cohan says. “It’s not predetermined how it will come out, but we hope it will prove what we think we’re seeing, that the disease here is different.”

Such proof would be an important breakthrough for Gayla Benefield, who, like many in Libby, has pleural plaquing—an asbestos plaque akin to the plaque one might find on a tooth, except on the lungs. While the pleural plaquing that tremolite may induce is not considered as imminently destructive as the asbestos lung cancer mesothelioma, it can nonetheless be lethal, Benefield says.

“What it does is it causes you to suffocate because your lungs shrink. My mother’s lungs looked like two sausages hanging on a stick because the lining had gotten so thick,” she says.

If science can show that tremolite-caused conditions in Libby can be as dangerous, or even more dangerous, than chrysotile-caused conditions, there would be a strong argument for inclusion of this type of asbestos-related disease in a compensation bill. But the Benefields aren’t necessarily optimistic about the chances of that happening.

“The easiest way to deal with a health problem is to pass legislation that says, ‘There isn’t a health problem,’” says Gayla’s husband David Benefield. “That’s basically what they’re trying to do here with these fairness bills in the Senate. They legislate and then all of a sudden, ‘Hey, a miracle happened. They’re all healed.’”

If the government included Libby tremolite exposure victims under the bill, “that’s a pretty astronomical amount of money,” David continues. “And the government says, ‘Well, we can’t put these companies out of business.’ Well, I have a different outlook on that. Those companies got where they’re at by collateral damage. They knew that people were going to get sick and die. They knew that. And they knew that when they hit a certain point, they’d have to get out of here and get their friends in Congress to protect them, and that’s what they’re doing right now.”

Gayla adds: “Our problem is that we die before we meet the government’s criteria.”

A few miles away, Les Skramstad, a 68-year-old man who says he’ll be lucky to live another two years, wonders how, even if most Libby residents became eligible for compensation under the bills currently in limbo, one would go about calculating a proper amount.

“I don’t think there’s an amount of money that anybody would take for their life,” Skramstad says, adjusting a mesh baseball cap atop his salt-and-pepper hair. “Money doesn’t mean anything after you die.”

What money could do, he says, is help some people salvage their dignity.

“When you get sick, your dignity goes in the toilet,” he says, understandably bothered that he can no longer work, or even walk, for more than a brief period of time.

“If I was going to figure it, each person that has it should have all their health care costs and a million bucks,” Skramstad says. “Anybody who disagrees with that, I’d ask them, ‘Would you take $1 million for your life?’ That’s the way I look at it. Maybe that’s a hillbilly way, but that’s how I see it.”

Skramstad and the Benefields are quick to note that, to them, compensation plays second fiddle to the need for speedy cleanup in Libby, a town that has spawned a new term within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Slow Motion Technological Disaster,” or SMTD.

Until the cleanup is complete, asbestos-related diseases will continue to ravage Libby. Theodore Larson, an epidemiologist for ATSDR, says that Montana’s screening program continues to add more people to his federal agency’s tremolite exposure registry. New detections, he says, come in “slow and steady.”

Wendy Thomi, the Environmental Protection Agency’s community involvement coordinator in Helena, estimates that 265 exposed homes have been cleaned in Libby, while 1,300 to 1,400 still await cleaning.

This may explain why Montana Democratic Sen. Max Baucus last month released a statement saying, “I’m fearful the EPA’s momentum in Libby has been slipping…”

The EPA’s Libby Project Manager, Jim Christensen, had requested $21 million for cleanup of homes for the budget year that begins this month. He was given $17 million.

“The EPA faces really tough budget times right now,” Christensen says. “Libby is a big priority and we get a large chunk of money. I intend to keep pushing for the entire chunk.”

“This administration doesn’t seem to have a problem spending a billion dollars a day tearing down and rebuilding Iraq and making Halliburton rich,” David Benefield says, “but they won’t take care of us here in the U.S. with $4 million for cleanup?”

Last month, EPA administrator Mark Leavitt came to Libby, fulfilling a promise to Baucus, who said he would block Leavitt’s November appointment unless he agreed to visit. Skramstad was introduced to Leavitt by Christensen.

“I found him to be a real pleasant fellow to talk to,” Skramstad says. “I told him we were literally fighting for our lives and that time was of the essence.”

It remains to be seen if Leavitt will make a public commitment to a rapid Libby cleanup. In the meantime, Libby waits anxiously.

“We’re not looking for a hand-out,” Gayla says. “We’re just looking for help.”

mike@missoulanews.com

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