To be or not to be? 

After decades of personal tragedy and mounting economic losses, the people of Libby weigh the benefits against \nthe stigma of a Superfund label

When it comes to her feelings about Governor Judy Martz, 62-year-old grandmother Gayla Benefield doesn’t mince words. “She’s about ready to get a letter from me saying, ‘Fuck you.’”

If Benefield sounds pissed off, she’s paid dearly for that right.

Benefield, a Libby resident, has known for decades that people in her town were dying of “dust disease,” as it was known until the 1980s when she heard the word asbestos for the first time. It was dust disease that killed her father, Perley Vatland. He went to work at the vermiculite mine in 1954 when it was still owned by the Zonolite Co. Twenty years later he was dead, a victim of asbestosis, insatiable corporate greed and medical misdiagnosis. The local doctors told him he had heart disease and treated him with nitroglycerine. At the time of his death at 62, Benefield’s age now, his breathing was so labored he couldn’t walk 50 feet.

Eleven years after her father’s slow and painful death, Benefield’s mother was diagnosed with asbestosis. She suffered her husband’s horrible fate and succumbed in 1996.

In 1987, her sister, Eva Thomson, learned that her husband, a supervisor in the mine, had been diagnosed with asbestosis and was promptly laid off. He died four years later. In the last, gasping six weeks of his life, the family’s medical bills totaled a quarter of a million dollars.

To say that asbestosis has taken a heavy toll on the Benefield and Thomson families would be a colossal understatement. The sisters tick them off, one by one: parents, a daughter, two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law. One of Thomson’s sons has it; the other son may have it. And the scary part for their families—indeed, for all of Libby—is how few of the asbestos victims ever worked in the mine.

I catch up with Benefield, Thomson and Thomson’s significant other, Leroy Billadeau, in the foyer of the Libby High School gymnasium shortly after the Fourth of July. All three have been diagnosed with asbestosis, a disease that results in scarring of the lungs and mercilessly can take as long as 40 years to kill its victims. Billadeau never worked at the vermiculite mine, but he now spends between $600 and $800 a month for drugs and inhalers to ease his symptoms.

We have just come from a panel discussion that included 13 people, most of them Libby residents, arranged by Rep. Dennis Rehberg, Montana’s sole congressman. The purpose of the meeting: To give Libby townspeople some idea what a Superfund designation could do for—or to—their town. About 100 people sat in the bleachers listening to the speakers, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables on the gymnasium floor, pondering their town’s economic fate. After years of tallying personal tragedy, this discussion was the first time that people in Libby had heard of the toll that asbestos has taken on schools and businesses as well.

The public health impacts in Libby have been known for decades, long before other Montanans learned that invisible, deadly, airborne tremolite asbestos fibers from the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine were slowly killing the people in Libby. Benefield has been nagging public officials for years to do something about the asbestos problem. From the mayor of Libby on up, she has been pointing out the dangers posed by the nearby vermiculite mine for over a quarter of a century. Few took her seriously. Even former governor and beloved native son Marc Racicot turned his back on Libby, many believe, spending his last few weeks in office as George Bush’s mouthpiece in the 2000 election. Now, Benefield and others in Libby have turned their wrath on Gov. Judy Martz, who has not been to Libby since she was elected governor. Martz did go to Eureka, less than 70 miles away, to attend the Great Log Haul in May, but bypassed Libby on her way home.

Benefield remembers when a state health director, Dr. Benjamin Wake, first voiced his suspicions that there was asbestos in the Libby vermiculite mine back in 1957. It was about the same time that the first case of dust disease surfaced in Libby miner Glen Taylor, who was sent to the state sanatorium at Galen. A doctor there wrote a letter to mine officials asking whether there was asbestos in the ore. Taylor died of lung cancer in 1961. “He left nine children, and they nearly starved to death,” Benefield recalls. “They’ve all been diagnosed.”

Benefield knows a lot of things about W.R. Grace that most people don’t know, much of which came out in court when she sued the company for the wrongful death of her mother in the late 1990s.

Back in 1955, says Benefield, the mine’s owner, the Zonolite Co., provided the miners with respirators, which later proved ineffective at filtering out the long, needle-like tremolite asbestos fibers.

W.R. Grace bought the mine in 1963. Six years later, says Benefield, the company issued a confidential report stating that 92 percent of the miners would develop respiratory disease within 21 years after exposure. In short, says Benefield, “They knew it by 1969.”

The company dealt with growing health complaints filed by its workers by closing down a dry-mill processing plant and replacing it with a wet processing system. That fix proved no healthier than the dry plant.

“We had Grace by the balls by 1979,” says Benefield. And then Ronald Reagan was elected president and cut funding to the EPA, diverting funds instead to rid public schools of asbestos, a decision few protested at the time.

“I’ve been saying since 1974 they’re killing people up there,” says Benefield. “In 1985 my mother was diagnosed and that’s when the bells went off. The horrors she had to go through to die. . . I felt something had to be done.”

The trial, held at the Lincoln County Courthouse in Libby, attracted little attention. While the jury deliberated, Grace attorneys offered Benefield $605,000 to settle, with one stipulation: Benefield was never to speak about the case or her settlement. She said no. “They weren’t offering the people who were dying that much money. To me it was an insult.” When the jury returned, they ruled in Benefield’s favor and awarded her $250,000. Benefield paid a high price for the right to speak about the case, but as she puts it, “It was never about the money.”

Hers was not the first case filed against W.R. Grace, however. Benefield recalls the first trial against Grace in 1995 or 1996, during which evidence was presented identifying nine miners who were judged the most severely ill. Topping the list was Perley Vatland, her father, identified by the company as severely ill as early as 1966. “They worked that man to death,” she says. “It was a concentration camp mentality.”

Her sister, Thomson, employs a similar analogy when she talks about her husband, who was a supervisor at the mine. Company officials told him that the dry mill processing plant was the cause of his health problems and that the new, wet plant would take care of everything. It was a lie he was told to pass on to his men. “They lied,” says Thomson. “They lied to their supervisor and he was supposed to pass it on and he did.”

Thomson coughs repeatedly through our conversation and I ask her if it’s due to her asbestosis. It is, she tells me. “It’s a way of life,” she says simply. It’s as though people in Libby are anesthetized by tragedy and steeling themselves against further tragedies to come.

Then, of course, what’s past is past; there’s still the future to consider.

Sparring with Grace

Paul Peronard is the Libby coordinator for the EPA. For the past year the EPA has been cleaning up Libby’s hot spots with emergency funds budgeted by Congress—some $30 million for fiscal year 2001— which are due to run out Sept. 30. That money has been spent removing contaminated soil and ore tailings from nine locations around town, as well as for medical screening of more than 6,000 Libby residents. Cleanup has focused on the most contaminated sites where ore was screened and exported. This summer the EPA will remove two school running tracks built from ore tailings at the high school and the middle school. An ice skating rink at the elementary school also will be cleaned of contaminated soil. Needless to say, the EPA doesn’t want the American taxpayers to shoulder the entire financial burden of the cleanup effort, so last April EPA sued W.R. Grace to recover the costs. Two days later, the company filed for bankruptcy. How does a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing complicate attempts at recouping costs? “A lot,” says Peronard. If the EPA prevails in its lawsuit—and Peronard is confident it will—then the EPA will take the judgment into bankruptcy court, essentially positioning itself as a creditor.

The company’s bankruptcy filing is not the only monkey wrench thrown into the emergency response. W.R. Grace shut down operations in 1990 and in 1994 sold the vermiculite mine to the Kootenai Development Corp., and then bought back 66 percent of KDC’s stock last year. Peronard says that W.R. Grace has been steadily acquiring more KDC stock with the eventual goal of owning it all, including the mine.

“When all this became an issue we felt we would become liable for the property regardless of who owned it,” says Alan Stringer, the W.R. Grace representative in Libby. Basically, Stinger says that Grace is buying back the mine so it can manage what the EPA does there.

Shortly after W.R. Grace became majority stockholder in KDC it denied the EPA access to the mine and two other parcels of land, where the agency planned to put the contaminated soil and tailings. The EPA had to get a court order forcing the company to allow the agency access. Last May, the EPA finally began hauling the contaminated soil to the mine.

The Superfund Stigma

The EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the federal agency which is conducting the medical screenings, have set up shop on Mineral Avenue, Libby’s main drag, and appear to be dug in for the long haul. The emergency cleanup process is in place and the work is proceeding. The second round of medical testing begins this month.

Now, it’s up to the EPA, Gov. Martz and the people of Libby to decide their future.

At Rehberg’s panel discussion, which includes school and business leaders from Libby, four options for long-term cleanup were discussed: 1) W.R. Grace could conduct the cleanup itself; 2) the cleanup could be continued under the current emergency response program; 3) Congress could pass special legislation allocating money for cleanup; or 4) Libby could be designated a Superfund site. Though everyone in Libby agrees on the basics—continuing medical care and ridding the town of asbestos contamination—the sticking point appears to be how to accomplish those goals.

From the outside looking in, the decision seems simple enough: opt for the Superfund designation and let the federal government bring in its experts and do the job as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. But from the inside looking out, the decision to go Superfund or not is just the latest wrenching agony for a town that’s seen more than its share.

Consider what’s on the table: Few in Libby, it seems, want W.R. Grace to conduct the cleanup. The EPA has already ordered the company to clean up the export plant, and Grace did so, but in a manner that still has many people angry. Few trust the company to do a better job on a larger scale. “Grace has done nothing but stall,” says Thomson. “And when they had the chance to clean up they didn’t. We don’t want them anywhere near cleanup.”

Many, like Benefield, believe W.R. Grace shouldn’t conduct the clean up, but the company should foot the bill. Otherwise, she says, Grace simply gets away with murder.

Likewise, continuing the decontamination as an “emergency cleanup” isn’t a very good long-term solution either, according to David Williams, Superfund coordinator for EPA’s Region 8 headquarters in Denver, since both the time and funding allotted for emergency responses are limited. If the emergency response drags on for years, W.R. Grace could challenge the EPA in court, and EPA risks not recovering the full cost.

Convincing Congress to pass special legislation to pay for the cleanup is also unlikely, says Rep. Jerry Weller, a Republican congressman from Chicago’s South Side. Weller, who was invited to the Libby panel discussion by Rehberg, knows a thing or two about industrial pollution and the Superfund program. Weller’s congressional district includes the town of Joliet, where workers at a nuclear weapons plant were poisoned by the deadly material they handled daily. It also includes the town of Ottawa, Ill., a Superfund site contaminated by radium, a radioactive element used there for decades to manufacture illuminated watch faces. Like the miners in Libby, who were encouraged to take home asbestos-laden vermiculite for use in their gardens, the workers at the Ottawa plant were urged to take home free radium. They used it to paint decorations on their homes and, at Halloween, on their faces. The company went out of business before the Superfund designation was made. Ottawa is now midway through its Superfund-authorized cleanup, which has already cost $45 million.

What some in Libby, notably the business community, hope to get from special legislation is Superfund money, minus the stigma of a Superfund designation. That, says Waller, is unlikely.

Stigma is a word that pops up frequently in discussions about Libby’s future. Among some there is a head-buried-in-the-sand mentality about the deadly tremolite asbestos fibers that rained down on the town from blasting at the mine, was kicked up by teenaged track stars and was inhaled by thousands of people every day for decades. Folks still refer to their town as pristine, as it appears to the naked eye. But the naked eye has blinded some folks to the inescapable reality.

The Superfund stigma is dismissed by some who simply want their town cleaned up now. But for others, it’s a legitimate concern and they don’t want to make a decision until they get all their questions answered.

“The statement I always give is, we have more questions than answers,” says Bob Tunis, executive director of the Lincoln County Economic Development Authority. Tunis may just have the most challenging job in Montana: Luring entrepreneurs and their investment dollars to Libby and Lincoln County. His job also makes him particularly sensitive to the various ramifications of a Superfund label. Tunis worries that a Superfund designation might affect home values. He suspects that the secondary mortgage market—mortgage companies that buy existing mortgages—might take a hands-off approach to a town.

Superfund or not, the town already bears a stigma of sorts. Home sales and prices have fallen since 1999. According to Bob Beagle, a real estate agent, in 1999, 120 homes in Libby sold for a total of $10.7 million. Last year, 119 homes sold for a total of $10 million. In the first half of this year only 30 homes have sold. The average price of a home declined from $89,700 in 1999 to $83,700 this year. Beagle wonders what a Superfund designation will do to new home financing, and whether all homes in Libby would be included in the designation, or just homes in certain neighborhoods.

Then there’s the eroding tax base. The Libby school district has already lost 143 students since 1999. A recent operating levy failed, and within three weeks the school board was forced to cut between $500,000 and $600,000 from the budget. One elementary school was closed. Fully 60 percent of the students in the Libby school district qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared to the statewide average of 33 percent. Lincoln County also has the second-highest unemployment rate in Montana at more than 11 percent. “It’s hard for people to invest in this community when they don’t have any money,” says Libby school district Superintendent Kirby Maki.

“Until we have a clean bill of health we won’t see significant investment,” says Tunis. He also suspects that the federal government is blacklisting the town when it comes to obtaining grants for community projects unrelated to the asbestos issue. So much money is pouring into Libby for emergency cleanup that Tunis believes—but can’t prove—that other federal agencies are rejecting grant applications from his town.

The Governor weighs in

In one sense, Libby is already a Superfund site simply because it meets all the legal criteria. To receive funding, however, requires an official designation. Ultimately, it’s up to the EPA to make that determination, but EPA officials say they won’t take that step unless they have consensus in the community and the approval of the governor. The EPA has listed only one site—in Wisconsin—on the Superfund list without the governor’s support. The EPA doesn’t appear likely to do that again.

I found no one in Libby who wasn’t upset with Martz to some degree. Even school superintendent Maki, who I’ve known for years and who is loathe to utter a negative word about anyone, delicately admits that these days Martz doesn’t register very high on Libby’s popularity meter.

The complaints lodged against her were the same among nearly everyone I spoke with: she went to Eureka in May, but didn’t stop in Libby for the Citizens Advisory Group meeting later that night. (The Lincoln County Commissioners attended both events.) She hasn’t been to Libby since she was elected, and, adding insult to injury, the self-described lap dog of industry met with officials of W.R. Grace but not with Libby residents. That has led some in Libby to suspect that Martz has already decided to take W.R. Grace’s advice on how and when the town is cleaned up.

Such suggestions, and the mere mention of Martz’s now infamous lap dog quote, has Martz’s Policy Director Shane Hedges practically screaming over the phone.

“The idea that this governor is going to do whatever Grace asks her to do is patent nonsense, patent nonsense, patent nonsense, patent nonsense,” he repeats like a mantra. The governor, he says, met with Grace officials because the people of Libby asked her to. And she made it clear at that meeting that the state of Montana expects W.R. Grace to do right by the people of Libby.

Hedges continues his tirade, arguing that not a day goes by when someone in the Martz Administration isn’t working on one aspect or another of the Libby asbestos problem. Martz had hoped that EPA Director Christie Todd Whitman would travel to Libby with her this summer, but Whitman bowed out. The Legislature also kept Martz busy until May. And the Eureka log haul? Martz couldn’t make Libby that night, says Hedges, because she had already committed to an event in Glen, far away in the Big Hole Valley, and she doesn’t like to cancel events.

By press time, the governor had announced plans to meet with Libby residents on Aug. 8 to head off mounting criticism that her Administration is still not doing enough to address the state’s most pressing health and environmental concern.

Hedges says that Martz has three objectives with Libby, and they’re pretty much the same objectives Libby has for itself: Meet the health needs of the town, arrange long-term health care, and clean up the town as quickly as possible.

One approach Martz is considering is to use the state’s consensus council to help the town decide how best to proceed with the cleanup. The consensus council is an award-winning, nationally recognized group that brings in facilitators and experts on the issue at hand, gives all the stakeholders a voice and a place at the table, and then tries to find a consensus. “It’s almost like a citizen jury type thing,” says Hedges.

Hedges says that in retrospect, Martz probably should have met with W.R. Grace officials in a public forum in Libby. Admittedly, it was a valuable political lesson, learned the hard way.

He does say, however, that Martz will travel to Libby, probably this month, if she and the Lincoln County Commissioners can align their schedules. When she does, she’ll find a town angry, physically and emotionally scarred, and seriously down on its luck, but unwilling to give up on the future. As Sandy Wagner, one of Libby’s many victims, put it to Rehberg and her fellow citizens: “Never has defeat been the victor in our community.” #

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