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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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It was little more than a year ago that hundreds of deaths and illnesses in Libby, Montana were linked to asbestos exposure. The toxin came from a nearby mine owned by the W.R. Grace Company. The town is seeking damages for cleanup and health care, but W.R. Grace has recently filed for bankruptcy protection. Meanwhile, the EPA has discovered that children have been exposed to asbestos on school grounds. Producer Jane Fritz reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. The news in Libby, Montana keeps going from bad to worse. It's been more than a year since more than a hundred deaths were linked to tremolite asbestos in that small town. The source of the toxin is a closed vermiculite mine owned by the chemical company W.R. Grace. This isn't the first time Grace has gotten into trouble over pollution. In the 1980s, the story of a municipal well contamination case involving Grace in Woburn, Massachusetts, led to the book and movie, "A Civil Action". Now, as the spotlight turns on its activities in Libby, Montana, W.R. Grace has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The move jeopardizes its cleanup and health care payments for the benefits of its victims in Libby. And recently, the Environmental Protection Agency found that children in the town have been exposed on school grounds to asbestos from the mine. Producer Jane Fritz has our story.

(voices, rain, birds)

FRITZ: On Memorial Day, a light rain is falling on Libby, Montana's Community Cemetery. Family members walk through the wet grass to place flowers at the graves of loved ones lost in war. But along Libby Creek, a different fraternity is being remembered: the miners who worked at the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine, and their brothers, cousins, and wives.

TOM: Walter McQueen, Alice McQueen, George McQueen, Ed McQueen-- (fades into background)

FRITZ: A crowd gathers before rows of small, white crosses set like grave markers. The names of the deceased are lettered in black. Leroy Tom, the last union president at the defunct mine, reads the names of family, friends, and neighbors. All of them, all 170, have died from asbestos-related diseases.

TOM: -- Fred Johnson, Lauren Garret, Ruby Garret-- (fades into background)

FRITZ: Twelve year old Michael Benefield stands by the marker bearing the name of his great-grandmother, Margaret Vatland. Michael remembers how his grandma Margaret suffered with asbestosis, tethered to oxygen tanks, her lungs scarred from years of breathing in asbestos dust her husband unknowingly brought home from the mind on his clothing.

BENEFIELD: She always had candies in this little glass jar. Everytime we went over to her house we used to get some from her. I think it's kind of sad, because she died and I didn't really want her to.

FRITZ: Michael points to another marker for his great-grandfather Perley, then one for his uncle Ed. And he wonders if he's next.

BENEFIELD: My grandmother said that I might have it because it takes a whole bunch of years before you really know you have it. If I have it, it'll make me feel way different. It'll turn my world around. It'll make me suffer, and it'll just make me die.

FRITZ: Michael has reason to worry: asbestos has been found on the playground of the school he's attended since kindergarten, a year and a half after victims of asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer were linked to the W.R. Grace mine, the Environmental Protection Agency is finding other asbestos-contaminated sites in Libby in unexpected places.

BLACK: This asbestos fiber here is unique in that way. It's extremely electrostatic. It's stuck to everything. So when miners left the workplace with their clothing, their overalls on, it went to the dental office, the hospital-- (fades into background)

FRITZ: Dr. Brad Black, the county health officer, is concerned about new exposures to asbestos. That's why he's visiting Michael Benefield's class at Libby Middle School today, answering students' questions and teaching them how to identify vermiculite, a flaky, shiny mineral that is contaminated with tremolite asbestos.

BLACK: Okay, how do you think the air gets contaminated? (fades into background)

FRTIZ: After class, Dr. Black tells me education is about all one can do.

BLACK: Right now, there's nothing to do other than we want to stop all ongoing exposures. So, we're going to be counting to look very closely to find new sources in the community to make sure that we don't have ongoing exposures to kids.

FRITZ: The reason for concern lies in the history of the middle school's athletic track. It was constructed over a base of mine waste in the early 1970s. So was the track at the high school. In 1981, W.R. Grace tested the high school track for asbestos. Confidential, internal memos show that runners were exposed at nearly twice the level the federal government allows for adults working with asbestos. Eventually, both tracks were paved over. But today, vermiculite is surfacing at the edges of the asphalt, so the town canceled the remaining track meets and closed both tracks. This summer, the EPA will remove and replace them, but they aren't the last of the new asbestos sites in Libby that need cleaning up.

(children playing)

FRITZ: It's recess time at Plummer Elementary School, and Kathy Foote is here to make sure no children go beyond the orange plastic fence that separates the playground from the old ice-skating rink. Recently, the EPA found asbestos ore on the surface of the abandoned rink. It covered the area with thick, plastic sheeting and several inches of sand to prevent exposure to asbestos. Like many children in Libby, all of Kathy's kids have played here for years.

FOOTE: Since it hasn't been an ice skating rink, the little boys have played cars in it, they ride their bikes through it. All the kids around here do. How many of them are going to end up with asbestosis several years down the road from breathing this in? Maybe none of them will. Maybe we'll get lucky. My husband has been diagnosed with having asbestosis because he played in the piles at the ball fields as a kid. So, I guess it makes you wonder, you know, from playing in this dirt, if the children are going to be exposed.

FRITZ: Like hundreds of others growing up in Libby, Kathy's husband, Cam, played little league baseball on fields adjacent to the mines shipping area. Piles of vermiculite were stored there just beyond the home run fence. Parents encouraged kids not on the ball field to play in the vermiculite instead. They thought it was safer than behind the bleachers, by the riverbank. Loose vermiculite was also used by coaches to soak up water on the playing field after storms. Kathy Foote and her husband know several people in their thirties and forties who played at the ball field that now have lung abnormalities. Cam, himself, is in the early stages of asbestosis, and he's only thirty-two years old.

FOOTE: I have five family members out of my family and my husband's family, who have been diagnosed with asbestosis. Not one of them has worked up there. I guess in the beginning, when all of it started, I thought it was being blown out of proportion, but the more it progressed, I don't think it's been blown out of proportion at all. I mean, it's something that needs to be dealt with and taken care of. To make sure that it gets cleaned up so that it's safe and the sooner, the better.

FRITZ: But cleaning up Libby isn't going to be that easy. Finding tremolite asbestos can be tricky. The individual fibers are longer and thinner than other forms of asbestos. It can take an electron microscope to find them.

(machinery noises)

FRITZ: When it's detected, like around the ball fields and mine buildings, dump trucks haul away the contaminated soils. Paul Peronard, the EPA coordinator in Libby, says by summer's end the agency will have spend 28 million dollars on investigation, cleanup, and health studies.

PERONARD: The impact here is huge, off the scale on most terms of epidemiological measures. I haven't seen a site that really compares with this. There are more people sick around Libby than ever documented, say at Times Beach or Love Canal.

FRITZ: Peronard says it may take placing Libby on the Superfund list to clean up all the asbestos-contaminated sites. Vermiculite was used extensively in hundreds of gardens in Libby, and in homes, as Zonolite attic insulation. There's another reason that the cleanup is going so slowly. The EPA spent months in court forcing W.R. Grace to allow it access to the mine. And according to Chris Weis, science advisor for the EPA, W.R. Grace hasn't helped the agency identify other problem areas in town.

WEIS: We don't expect W.R. Grace to own up to any of this. Throughout our short history of interaction with them on this site, they have not been cooperative in any way. So we certainly wouldn't anticipate them to change their behavior for material that they placed at this school or anyplace else.

STRINGER: Criticize us for maybe being a little slow, but don't criticize us for not doing anything.

FRTIZ: That's Alan Stringer, Grace's representative in Libby. He was the manager of the mine until it closed in 1990, and stayed on to handle the mine's reclamation until 1994. He's returned to Libby, he says, to help solve the cleanup problems, not create them. After all, he says, this was his community too.

STRINGER: I have two children that grew up here. I have one daughter who was employed by this company while she was going to school. And I think there were a number of other employees whose children worked up there, that we didn't believe that we were putting our children at risk.

FRITZ: But court documents show that W.R. Grace knew when it purchased the mine in 1963 that tremolite asbestos was a dangerous contaminant, and that the mine had a serious dust problem. A 1969 study showed that 92 percent of long-term workers at the mine suffered from lung disease. In 1973, the company began switching to a wet milling process that reduced asbestos exposures to workers. It also cut the daily emission of airborne asbestos fiber over town.

STRINGER: Well, after Grace bought this and became aware that there was this significant problem, a period of time was taken to try and understand just what is the problem; what is the size of it and what is the magnitude of it, and what do we need to do? There is still an unknown about the insulation, but I find it very difficult to believe that there is a substantial risk to people today in this community because of vermiculite just being on the ground someplace.

FRITZ: To determine the scope of health problems in Libby, the Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is conducting the largest asbestos study ever undertaken.

MAN: Ever employed by W.R. Grace? No. Inhalation or exposure to vermiculite, hunting and fishing, firewood gathering near sites? Yes. (fades into background)

FRITZ: More than 6,000 current and former Libby area residents were screened last summer. Early results show that one out of three have lung abnormalities. Hundreds of cases are confirmed to be asbestos-related. A second screening is planned for this August.

MAN: Your children played in the piles? Yes.

FRITZ: Chest x-rays showing abnormalities need follow-up by a doctor, so Libby's hospital created the Center for Asbestos-Related Diseases. It is funded by W.R. Grace. Dr. Brad Black, the county health officer, directs it. And today his patients are Gayla and David Benefield, young Michael's grandparents

BLACK: You have some changes in the lung tissue. See this bump out here? This looks very suspicious here for plaqueing. And the other thing that I noticed with you is you've got too much in here. You notice the increased whiteness in through this area. (fades into background)

FRTIZ: Gayla Benefield's lung problems come as no surprise to her because her father worked at the mine, and she grew up with asbestos in the home. But David Benefield never worked at the mine, nor had anyone from his family. He thinks his exposure came from twenty years of coaching little league games near where the vermiculite was stored.

DAVID: The only reason I was there was because I had two boys that played ball there. They had the same exposure I did, and they were there with me all the time that I was there. And the younger one, he would go down with me when I was coaching the older one and play in the piles.

FRITZ: In April, Gayla Benefield traveled with several other Libby residents to Montana's state capitol. They went to ask Governor Judy Martz for help, especially with future healthcare needs. The cost of caring for someone with a disease like asbestosis can exceed a half a million dollars, and there is no cure. W.R. Grace set up a medical plan for those officially diagnosed with asbestos-related illness, but the company declared bankruptcy in April, so support beyond this year is uncertain. Governor Martz told Gayla and her friends the state would try to help the community, but couldn't make any promises.

MARTZ: Our heart's there. Can we get a pocketbook there? That's what we're going to have to work on. I'm not going to tell you something that I can't do, because I know for Montana to take this issue on, you know as well as I do there's probably not money to take it on.


FRITZ: After the meeting, Gayla Benefield looks out over the same asbestos-laden site where her grandchildren used to play. After fifteen years of working to understand and document Libby's legacy of asbestos poisoning, she's stunned by the prospect that the W.R. Grace mine may touch yet another generation.

GAYLA: Literally, all my grandchildren have been exposed to this now. The same thing that killed my parents and probably is going to get myself, and my children. My own children, I couldn't protect them, they were exposed, and dammit, I couldn't protect my grandchildren, and that really hurts me right now.

FRITZ: And Gayla Benefield worries about communities beyond Libby. Vermiculite from Libby is commonly used as attic insulation and in potting soil. It's estimated to be in millions of homes across America. EPA's Paul Peronard says it's best to leave the insulation alone and keep the potting soil, which poses less risk, outdoors and wet down. A more pressing problem, says Peronard, is the 18 processing sites that received vermiculite ore from Libby.

PERONARD: What kind of medical effects have happened at these other places? Are there similar rates of asbestosis? You know, we certainly know that that's the case among workers at some of the processing facilities, like in Minneapolis or Marysville, Ohio. You know, so then you have to ask, what about the communities around these places? So, you have a whole set of problems related directly to Libby.

FRITZ: This summer, at the invitation of Governor Judy Martz and Senator Max Baucus, EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman will visit Libby and assess the cleanup to determine if Superfund status is required. She'll also consider how the federal government should play a more direct role in the community's growing public health needs. For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz in Libby, Montana.

(music plays: Sally Timms "Painted Girl" LAND OF MILK & HONEY (Bloodshot -- 1995)



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