In 1999, journalist Andrew Schneider heard a tip about a small Montana town where people were dying by the dozens. He broke the story of asbestos poisoning in Libby on the pages of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, bringing nationwide attention to the threat. Hear him talk about how he pursued the story, how he found out that W. R. Grace and the government knew about the dangers in Libby, and what happened after the story ran.
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The first time I heard there might be a problem somewhere in Montana was in Washington, D.C., where I met a physician who was doing some work with the Centers for Disease Control. I had known this doctor for a long time, and during our conversation he said, “While you’re working up there in the northwest, you ought to go check out this place in Montana. There’s a town where a bunch of people are dying because of some mine nearby.” That was all he knew. At the time, my colleagues and I were working on a hard rock mining story for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I was driving through every small town in the west, but I couldn’t pin it down — what the doctor had talked about; nobody knew anything about it.
Later we were in the eastern part of Montana, working on a story. My colleague was down in Helena at the Montana Environmental Information Center, and somebody there had gotten a report that something was happening in Libby. We were only 200 miles away, so I drove to Libby. While driving up to the mine, someone from the Montana environmental group was coming down. He’d gone up to check it out, and I asked, “What did you find?” He said, “There’s nothing up there. I don’t know what it’s all about.”
I went up the road to the mine with the photographer and looked around. The road was covered with a sparkly material. It was late in the day, and I didn’t make much of the sparkles in the road. But I had seen documents by the State of Montana that had said that the mine had been reclaimed, and I couldn’t quite figure out why the site was still so barren, if the tailing pile had really been reclaimed. The documents about the mine in Libby had talked about the site being covered with trees and foliage, and claimed that all of the debris was now stabilized so that nothing would blow off. I went back to Seattle and called a few friends in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Agency for Toxic Substances and Diseases Registry (ATSDR) and the State of Montana with my questions, but nobody knew about the large numbers of deaths in Libby. It just didn’t make sense to me.
So I went back to Libby again, and this time we took some samples of the soil around this now-sanitized tailing pile. We also took some samples around the rest of the town, including samples from the old ball fields, downtown areas and by the railroad tracks. Once we got back to Seattle, we had these soil samples analyzed and found significant levels of tremolite, much more so than there should have been after a cleanup. That was enough to make us want to go back to Libby and take a look around.
At that point I had no idea about the number of people that were impacted by the situation. We had no idea of the number of deaths. I had gotten some documents on what W. R. Grace was doing in Libby — a couple of hundred pages of documents that painted some interesting perspectives about what W. R. Grace knew about the safety of the mine. Eventually, we wound up with over 34,000 pages of documents.
So we went back to Libby and started interviewing people. We found several people who had family members who had died of what they felt were asbestos-related diseases. Each one of them led to someone else. The number of people affected began to look fairly significant, and we felt it was a story that we just had to pursue.
Journalist Andrew Schneider
I had dealt with W. R. Grace in the past on other stories, like the leukemia clusters in Woburn, Mass., and I knew that the court decision on Woburn required the company to establish a repository of documents that were open to any researchers. So we went into W. R. Grace’s repository and found an enormous number of pieces of paper that dealt with Libby. The documents were about what W. R. Grace knew and about the marketing of Zonolite. That gave us a good foundation to work up a second story on the fact that Grace knew how dangerous the mine in Libby was. But we still didn’t know the scope of it. We figured that maybe there were 95 or 100 people from Libby whom W. R. Grace had identified who had died from asbestos-related diseases. But that just didn’t make sense because Libby has a fairly mobile community. When the jobs go, people go. People that worked at the mill and the mines moved on.
On a long shot we started checking with pulmonologists, cancer specialists and respiratory specialists in the major medical centers where Libby residents might have gone. We checked six or seven hospitals in Denver, Salt Lake, Seattle and Portland. We talked to the physicians involved, and of course they didn’t reveal their patients’ names, but by this time we had a list of everyone from Libby who had died. We showed the list to the doctors, and we asked if they had anybody else — without giving us their names — from Libby or who had worked in Libby who had died of asbestos-related diseases. As a result of those inquiries the number of related deaths we had increased considerably. In fact, the number of deaths almost doubled.
We knew then that we had a situation where many, many people died. The number of people who had died was an enormously large number for the government — for any government — not to know about it, and we also had the first documentable signs that W. R. Grace knew about it. As we dug deeper we found that not only did W. R. Grace know about the situation, but the government did as well. We were told flat out: “Look, if you had even 100 people die of an occupational exposure in any town in America, we would know about it,” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), by NIOSH, by the Agency for Toxic Development. We also talked the Montana State Health Department, and they said they knew nothing of concern.
While the mines in Libby were supposed to have been cleaned up, Schneider and his colleagues took samples from the soil, and found significant levels of tremolite.
As our research went on and we wound up getting documents from the state departments, the state agencies and the federal agencies, it was obvious that somebody knew about the dangers of asbestos in Libby, and that somebody had reported it. The Montana Bureau of Mines was out in Libby. Their inspector had found all sorts of problems going on for years. NIOSH knew about it 20 years before we did this story. There was research done out here, and the potential exposure of workers to tremolite was discussed in some obscure medical journals, some occupational health journals and at meetings of occupational health specialists. The mentions were few and far between, but they did exist. As we found these, we found more people we could go to and ask: “What did you know, when did you know it and why didn’t you do anything about it?”
A list of people who knew includes figures at the OSHA, and people at the EPA to a somewhat lesser degree. OSHA really had a responsibility, as did the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), because they had the figures and research on the situation. They knew what was going on. I think it was obvious from the documents that these agencies knew there was tremolite here in Libby, and it was equally obvious that people at W. R. Grace’s headquarters knew that tremolite was lethal. There are a variety of references to it in hundreds of the documents. There were discussions between their lawyers and their marketing department on what to label this stuff, some of which said: “Should we admit that Zonolite insulation has asbestos in it? Should we not?” Clearly, they knew about this in the ’70s, and they may well have known in the ’60s. There are references going back to the ’60s and late ’50s before W. R. Grace bought the plant about tremolite being present here.
Did W. R. Grace know their workers were being harmed by tremolite? Yes, I’m positive they did. They talk about it in the documents; there were letters from their insurance companies saying, “You’ve got to do something about this, this is going to jump up and bite you.”
We probably interviewed 140 people in Libby, and then another 100 government and former W. R. Grace people elsewhere. Among the people in Libby, those that had asbestos-related diseases or had someone in their family that had the disease, were just adamant on what caused it and how much potential danger it posed everybody else. Those people who had family members who had died from respiratory problems clearly wanted to believe whatever their physician told them; for example, they believe that their family members died of emphysema due to smoking. But some of the people who told me that the death of their relatives’ deaths were attributed to smoking also told me their relatives never smoked. I said, “Well, look what’s happening on both sides of you. Your neighbors have this too.” “Oh, no, Grace would have told us,” they responded.
“Grace would have told us” — that’s what we heard repeatedly, even from people who had lost family members. They told us: “Grace couldn’t have known this. They wouldn’t have let us go up there. They wouldn’t have let my father work there.” That was the most common reply we got.
When we talked to the bureaucrats in Libby, the mayor, the city and county officials, they said, “No, this is just some kind of a fluke, it has nothing to do with the mine. We don’t know why these people are sick, it’s probably just a coincidence.” We talked to the Health Department, and that’s what they said, too.
We were astounded at what we were hearing from the people of Libby. They were blaming these deaths on everything up to and including flying saucers. They said, “We have an air inversion here; these people have weak lungs; they have bad blood; they have something else,” and this was all coming from fairly level-headed people. So I would say that before we did this first series of articles in November of 1999, denial was rampant in Libby. Even some of the people from the union were telling us, “No, no, it’s not a big deal. Grace would have said something.”
After the story ran around the country, we got swamped with calls. Within the first three or four weeks after the story was published, we probably got 150 people that called who had said they’d either lived in Libby, or their loved ones had lived in Libby, or they had worked on the mine or the dam project, and that they think they had asbestos-related diseases, or that their loved ones had died of asbestos-related diseases. By early 2000, we had a pretty good idea that the number of people that actually had died of this disease, who had died because of exposure to tremolite, could easily be 200 to 400 people.
Three days after the series of articles ran, Bill Yellowtail, who was then the Region 8 administrator at the EPA, sent Paul Peronard and his team up to Libby. That was all we could have hoped for. We journalists don’t make laws, we don’t send people to jail, we don’t do cleanup of sites like Libby. We inform the public and the bureaucrats that care, and they do something. So when the EPA sent their team up here to take a look that was about as much as we could have hoped for. We knew what they were going to find, and we just wanted someone with guts and an open mind to actually look at what was going on. And with Paul Peronard, Aubrey Miller and Chris Wise and that team from the EPA, you couldn’t have created a better group of people that came in to Libby to care for the people in this town.
Related articles by Andrew Schneider and his colleagues at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
» Special Report: Uncivil Action
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer compiled all of its Libby, Montana related articles, from Andrew Schneider’s first report in 1999, to more recent dispatches, in this special report webpage.