Exploiting Libby 

Is it time for media to leave the town alone?

If the Missoula documentary filmmakers Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis expected red-carpet treatment for last week’s premiere of their latest work, Libby, Montana, they were disappointed. The film about the asbestos poisoning of Libby opened Wednesday, March 3, in this pretty town, but something less than 400 people attended, not even filling downtown’s little Dome Theater.

That’s not exactly an overwhelming show of support from Libby when you consider that (a) tickets were free and (b) much of the town has a great deal more than casual interest in the film’s subject—as many as 2,000 people are dying from diseases caused by asbestos dust, and some additional undetermined number remain at risk of exposure.

But ask people in Libby about the film and eyes roll. For many, it means just another round of bad publicity for their town and yet another punishing blow to its depressed economy. Another documentary, this one with the upbeat title Dust to Dust, has already been made about Libby, and there have been countless newspaper and magazine stories and two books. One of the books—An Air That Kills by the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman who broke the story, Andrew Schneider, and his editor, David McCumber—has just been published.

“There are a lot of people who are just concerned about the continuing publicity that casts a negative pall on the community,” says Roger Morris, editor of the Western News, Libby’s weekly newspaper. “We do have problems, and we need to solve them, and overcoming negative publicity is one of our problems.”

In the beginning, Libby was begging for media coverage. The town was contaminated with asbestos dust from the W.R. Grace Corp. mine, and no one was doing anything about it, despite the deaths of some 200 people.

But now that Libby has been declared a Superfund site and the Environmental Protection Agency is cleaning up the town, many people are wondering what good is served by more publicity. Morris recalls, for instance, what happened after Gov. Judy Martz expressed surprise that Libby’s neighboring town Troy was included in the Superfund designation. Even though Martz was merely uninformed, her off-hand remark to reporters prompted erroneous newspaper stories across the state that the Superfund site was expanding. The headline in Butte blared: “Libby’s nightmare continues.”

“That was unnecessary negative publicity,” Morris says. “This is a great little community, but you wouldn’t know it from reading about it in the newspapers. We’ve actually had people call us and tell us that they’re not driving through town because they’re afraid to breathe the air.”

Although it’s impossible to know exactly how much to blame bad publicity, Libby’s economy is taking a beating. Since the mine closed and a lumber mill shut down, the unemployment rate is typically upwards of 15 percent, the worst in Montana. Libby is trying to attract new businesses, but even if prospects aren’t afraid of the air (EPA tests have shown it’s safe), other obstacles remain. Fiber optic cables haven’t made it here, and the main highway, U.S. 2, badly needs fixing. When townspeople went to Helena recently to demand roadwork, the highway was so bumpy the bus’s transmission broke on the way.

The Kootenai River Development Council was created by Libby to recruit businesses. Its biggest success: A security company has added workers to keep homeowners out of asbestos-contaminated houses during their two-week cleanups.

“I asked one of our engineering consultants the other day, ‘Do you know of a place that’s as isolated as Libby?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m sure there’s some place in the Congo.’ That’s what we’re up against here,” said Paul Rumelhart, the council’s director.

Jack DeShazer, a real estate salesman whose father died of asbestos-related disease and whose mother is dying of it, says it’s time for reporters to lay off Libby.

“It’s immoral what the media is doing to us,” he says. “In one sense, it’s as bad as what W.R. Grace did. W.R. Grace killed and poisoned all these people, but the media is trying to capitalize on our pain. They’re selling this news and obviously don’t care at all what it’s doing to our economy. They paint Libby like a ghost town left to die.”

Carr and Hawes-Davis, who run Missoula’s High Plains Films, defend their documentary as helping keep the heat on the government to finish removing asbestos from homes and businesses. The cleanup budget has been cut, meaning it could take as long as seven more years before Libby is asbestos-free. Townspeople are worried that more residents will be sickened.

By spreading Libby’s story, the filmmakers also point out, they might help prevent similar disasters in other mining towns.

“I worry about telling the story honestly,” Carr says. “I don’t worry about exploiting Libby because there are enough people in Libby who have told me that they’re glad we made this film.”

The audience for last week’s premiere seemed to understand. Scattered throughout the theater were old people carrying the oxygen tanks that have become ubiquitous in Libby. The known victims of this national scandal, they’re slowly suffocating from their years of exposure to asbestos dust. But there were a fair number of curious young people as well. One Libby high school student is making his own video documentary on his hometown’s tragedy.

“The younger people are beginning to realize that the legacy of the past is now at their doorstep,” says one Libby businessman, Gordon Sullivan. “This is a story that needs to be told to everyone.”

Contact the reporter: jwoods@missoulanews.com

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