Gayla Benefield was one of the first residents in Libby, along with Les Skramstad, to begin to put pressure on local and state governments to do something about the health crisis in Libby. Her own attempts to have W. R. Grace held accountable for its negligence in Libby were largely ignored, and she became somewhat of an outcast to some in her own community. For years she received threatening phone calls, lost friends and was called a “radical” and a “troublemaker” in her own community. It was only after a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Andrew Schneider, ran a story about Libby in late 1999 that the federal government began to take her seriously. But the alarm call came too late for many people in Libby. Gayla can count at least 30 people in her family that have been diagnosed with some level of lung abnormality, and many of these have been diagnosed with asbestosis, including herself and her husband, David. Her daughter Jenny has been diagnosed with a lung abnormality. Two of her nephews, ages 44 and 49, both have asbestosis, and she says they both have severely diminished lung capacity. Gayla is not one to complain about her own health, but when pressed she does report that she finds it relatively difficult to do menial tasks, becoming easily fatigued and short of breath.
Despite her own health issues, Gayla continues to work tirelessly for the rights of asbestos victims in Libby and elsewhere. Each year she receives calls and emails from hundreds of people around the country seeking information about asbestos-related topics. Many asbestos victims find it nearly impossible to find affordable health-care coverage. The cost of treatment for asbestos patients is expensive, and can last for years. Gayla has become an independent clearinghouse of information for these people, and she answers literally every request for help and information. She is also asked to speak at venues around the country. Recently, she addressed the Minnesota state Environmental Quality Board about asbestos-related issues (the city of Minneapolis had a major Zonolite processing facility that took vermiculite from Libby). She continues to work to get Libby cleaned up and to ensure health care for all asbestos victims. Her main goal is to help find a treatment for asbestos-related illness. Currently, the only medications that exist for asbestos-related diseases (ARD) treat the symptoms, but there are no medications or medical procedures that can cure or slow down the rate of lung degeneration in ARD patients.
Gayla enjoys spending time with her children and grandchildren, but she is worried about whether they, too, will someday have to hear the news that they have asbestos-related disease. Only time will tell, and in the meantime she is determined to enjoy every day with them that she can. Gayla has received several awards for her work, including the Tribute of Hope award from the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization in Washington, D.C., for her “determination and quest for justice and medical care for asbestos victims in Libby.”
Les Skramstad died on January 21, 2007. He was 70 years old and had been suffering from asbestos-related disease for many years. When we met Les in 2001, he was already showing the symptoms of late-stage asbestosis: chronic coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue and exacerbated joint stiffness and arthritis. But despite his illness, he and his wife, Norita — who has also been diagnosed with asbestosis — were determined to continue their work on behalf of other asbestos victims in Libby to ensure that the town would be cleaned up and that the company, W. R. Grace, would be held responsible for paying for health care and cleaning up the town. Les continued working on these issues right up until his death. He traveled to Washington, D.C., to talk to senators and representatives about the situation in Libby, and to New York City to talk with victims of air pollution following the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001. He was posthumously honored with the Alan Reinstein Memorial Award, in February, 2007, for his “unwavering commitment to justice and asbestos disease awareness” by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
Les played his bass guitar, “Lady,” and performed to audiences up until just a few months before he passed away. His music was a major part of his life and was a comfort to him during some of the worst times of his disease. Les
remains an inspiration to tens of thousands of asbestos victims around the country. His funeral was attended by hundreds of friends, family members and supporters, a fitting tribute to the kind, loving gentleman-cowboy from North Dakota.
Paul Peronard, the Enviromental Protection Agency (EPA) on-scene coordinator in Libby, was initially transferred out of Libby after the Superfund was designated but has since then returned to Libby to oversee cleanup activities there. Paul’s work takes him away from his wife and family in Denver, Colorado for many months out of the year. Many in Libby have praised him for his dedication to finding the best and most efficient path toward the cleanup effort in Libby. Peronard has been a bold critic of his own agency, claiming that the EPA shirked its responsibility in the 1980s by abandoning a public health study that may have led to an asbestos cleanup effort as much as 20 years earlier. Peronard has been criticized by some within his own agency for being too candid about the work to be done and the lack of funding available to do the job. But Peronard continues to work to find the best solution to this massive undertaking amid a myriad of obstacles.
Health in Libby
In 2001 the federal government, under the direction of the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR), conducted chest X-ray screenings of over 7,000 residents in Libby. They found that over 1,200 people had some degree of lung abnormality that is believed to be linked to asbestos exposure. It is still unclear exactly how many people are ill from asbestos-related disease (ARD) in Libby, because many people have moved away, and many more have opted not to be tested. But according to Libby’s Center for Asbestos-Related Diease (CARD), the numbers in Libby are most likely well over 2,000. In 2001, the CARD was treating about 1,400 patients with some type of lung abnormality associated with asbestos exposure. In early 2007, that number had increased to 1,800. The clinic reports that they add several patients to their rolls every week, with no signs of slowing down. Doctors at the clinic believe that most of these patients are in some stage of ARD, which includes asbestosis (the scarring of the inner lung tissue), lung cancer and mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer that attacks the outer lining of the lungs or stomach).
The numbers of people who have died from asbestos exposure in Libby is difficult to quantify, but based on available data, the CARD clinic estimates that over 270 people have died from asbestos-related disease.
CARD doctors suspect that the progession of ARD in Libby is more pronounced than in other sites where workers and their families were exposed to asbestos. The amphibole asbestos found in Libby, as compared to the more common chrysotile asbestos, is believed to be more toxic, and in much smaller doses. But experts who have studied asbestos disease generally acknowledge that whatever the form, there appears to be no safe level of asbestos exposure.
The symptoms of ARD in Libby are diverse, and particular to the specific patient. But common symptoms that occur include shortness of breath, fatigue, heavy coughing and chest pain. These symptoms generally progress with time. Many patients in Libby are on part-time or full-time oxygen, which adds heavily to their cost of health care. ARD is a degenerative disease, and there is currently no known cure.
Health care in Libby continues to be a major concern for patients and their doctors. Funds for health care are hampered by the fact that many people in Libby cannot find affordable health insurance, and also because the available health programs sometimes do not provide for the best treatment. W. R. Grace continues to provide a health plan for those diagnosed with ARD in Libby, but the plan does not pay for some critical medications and treatments, including oxygen for new patients, nor does it pay for most in-hospital costs. The company that administers Grace’s health-care plan, Health Network America (HNA), has recently enlisted its own set of physicians to reexamine the diagnoses for hundreds of Libby asbestos patients. These examinations have resulted in many patients being rediagnosed — in effect, according to HNA doctors, these people do not have asbestos-related disease of any kind. According to some reports, these rediagnosed patients are still receiving some benefits from the Grace medical plan, but many are concerned that Grace may opt to drop them from the rolls at any time.
CARD doctors agree that the number of asbestos cases in Libby can be expected to increase into the foreseeable future. With this in mind, doctors are pursuing research they hope will lead to new treatments for ARD that will lessen symptoms and increase life expectancies for those with the disease. If the story in Libby has a silver lining, it is most certainly in this medical research, and the hope for a treatment and cure for all those afflicted with asbestos-related disease.
The EPA, the cleanup in Libby, and future health risks
Our film Libby, Montana ends with residents discovering that despite getting a Superfund designation for the town, the EPA would not be cleaning out all of the asbestos-laden Zonolite insulation in most homes in Libby. This came as a shock to many who believed that every home and building would be free of Zonolite insulation once the cleanup was completed. The reasons given to residents were fairly ambiguous, but when pressed, the agency officials, Paul Peronard among them, admitted that it was mostly a matter of lack of appropriate funding. Given budget shortfalls, EPA managers were forced to decide what to prioritize for cleanup. The decision was made to keep the insulation in walls and some attics if they were properly sealed off.
But this was only part of the story. The other factor was that the EPA did not want to draw national attention to the issue of Zonolite insulation in Libby. The way to get around this was to decide not to declare a public-health emergency in Libby. This decision was two-fold: (1) because the CERCLA law — the law that created the EPA’s Superfund program — does not allow asbestos insulation to be removed except where a public-health emergency has beeen declared, the government was freed from the responsibility of paying for this very expensive cleanup, and (2) it freed the agency from having to explain to the millions of people around the country why it was removing Zonolite from Libby homes but not from other homes around the country. The EPA estimates that between 15 to 35 million homes and businesses around the U.S. contain Zonolite insulation. And the final irony of this decision resulted in no federal money to pay for health-related care in Libby, because the public health emergency that could have provided this funding was never declared.
The decision not to remove insulation did not go over well in Libby. It left many wondering: If asbestos is still in our homes when EPA leaves Libby, how can we be sure that we’ll be reasonably safe from asbestos exposure in the future? The answer did not come quickly. But in late 2006, when pressed for an answer, the EPA responded with a study by the agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG). In a surprising report, the OIG concluded that after almost seven years and tens of millions of dollars in cleanup, the EPA still could not say whether cleanup efforts in Libby had been successful at reducing risks of asbestos related diseases caused by amphibole asbestos. This was because no toxicological studies had been done to determine a “safe” level of amphibole asbestos. It was a frustrating week in Libby. Paul Peronard, the on-scene coordinator for most of those seven years, immediately began to make plans for a full toxicological study to assess the health risks of amphibole asbestos in Libby. This study began in early 2007, and it will attempt to determine the levels of amphibole asbestos that lead to ARDs — asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The study is intended to help determine how clean Libby properties need to be in order to significantly reduce the risks of asbestos exposure.
For now, the EPA estimates that between 1,200 and 1,400 homes and businesses will require some level of cleanup in Libby. As of the end of 2006, the EPA had completed cleanup on 794 properties. In addition, the EPA and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality are beginning inspection of several hundreds of homes in the nearby town of Troy, Montana, to assess what, if any, cleanup will be required there. The extent of asbestos contamination in Troy is unknown, but the EPA believes it may be significant.
The EPA has spent over $180 million in cleanup costs in Libby, and it estimates that the total cost of cleanup in Libby will be well over $200 million. If, however, the information from its toxicological study finds that the previous cleanup levels have not been sufficient to significantly reduce health risks, these costs will likely increase dramatically.
As for the estimated millions of homes in the U.S. that currently have Zonolite insulation, the EPA has written an information guide about what to do if you think you have Zonolite insulation in your home or business. The guide also explains some of the risks associated with asbestos exposure. The most important thing to know about Zonolite insulation is NOT to disturb it. You can find the EPA information guide about Zonolite insulation at the EPA website in pages about Asbestos Contamination In Vermiculite and Current Best Practices for Vermiculite Attic Insulation.
Other Processing Plants in Other Places
The story of asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana is tragic. But unfortunately, the story doesn’t end in Libby. Vermiculite ore from Libby was sent to over 200 processing plants around the country. In many of these facilities — called expansion plants — elevated levels of asbestos-related disease have been reported. In 2007, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) began a worker mortality study in Marysville, Ohio on a group of workers from the former O. M. Scott Company. Scott used Libby vermiculite in its soil conditioner and has reported many workers in its processing plant sick from various lung ailments. Currently, no studies exist to accurately assess exposures and health of people working in or living near these expansion plants. Instead, the EPA has selected the highest-priority facilities to conduct cleanup efforts, similar to what is being done in Libby. The numbers of workers and family members from these expansion plants who are, or may become, sick from asbestos exposure is unknown.
The W. R. Grace Company has been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for over six years. In August 2003, a federal court ordered Grace to reimburse the EPA over $54.5 million for cleanup costs in Libby. In addition, the U.S. Justice Department intervened in the Grace bankruptcy proceedings, charging that Grace was responsible for transferring billions of dollars to companies it had recently bought shortly before declaring bankruptcy. According to Justice Department lawyers, this amounted to a “fraudulent transfer” of money in order to protect Grace from civil suits related to asbestos. The bankruptcy court ordered the companies to return nearly $1 billion to Grace, which will remain as part of the assets to consider in the bankruptcy hearings. But the court has yet to determine how much Grace will be compelled to pay for cleanup and health-related costs in Libby.
Despite its bankruptcy, W. R. Grace is far from out of business. In 2006, Grace reported annual sales of $2.8 billion, with a net income of $18.3 million. Grace employs more than 6,400 employees in nearly 40 countries. Grace’s website boasts that safety and health are a number-one priority for its workers. On its legacy of environment, health and safety, Grace has this to say: “We are dedicated to the highest standards of health and safety practices and realize our corporate responsibility to the environment. Our goal is to establish an outstanding record of leadership and strong corporate citizenship. We come to work each day with a focus and dedication to work smart, work safe and take care of each other.”
In February 2005, seven executives and managers of W. R. Grace were indicted on ten federal criminal counts of knowingly endangering residents of Libby, and concealing information about the health effects of its mining operations. The defendants are also accused of obstructing the government’s cleanup efforts and wire fraud. “A human and environmental tragedy has occurred in Libby,” said William W. Mercer, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana. “This prosecution seeks to hold Grace and its executives responsible for the misconduct alleged.” The criminal trial is scheduled to begin in September 2007.
Alan Stringer, Grace’s sole remaining representative in Libby after 1990, was one of the executives accused in the indictment. But Stringer died in February 2007 of cancer. He was 62.
Earl Lovick, the mine manager for Grace in Libby until 1983, died of asbestosis in 1999, just three years after his taped court deposition, which was highlighted in Libby, Montana.
Asbestos in the courts
Anyone who has followed the issue of asbestos in the United States knows that it is a massive and complex subject. It also involves huge amounts of money. There are literally hundreds of law firms that work exclusively on asbestos-litigation cases, with good reason. Asbestos disease has exacted a terrible price on hundreds of thousands of American citizens, and the toll is rising as new cases are diagnosed daily. Literally hundreds of thousands of asbestos cases are currently awaiting trial around the country (estimates are as high as 600,000 or higher, depending on the source), and it is likely that most of these will never be settled. Asbestos cases are generally brought against companies that mined, manufactured or sold asbestos products, and dozens of these companies are now in, or have already been through, bankruptcy proceedings. Victims of asbestos-related disease usually receive pennies on the dollar for health-care compensation, if they receive anything at all.
For over 30 years, the U.S. Congress has attempted to deal with the enormous backlog of asbestos cases by passing asbestos-litigation reform, which would put limits on what asbestos victims could receive in compensation. It would also create a permanent fund — ostensibly paid into by responsible companies — that asbestos victims would be compensated from into the foreseeable future. But the problems with such legislation are enormous. How much money would such a fund need (estimates run as high as $200 billion)? Which companies would be expected to contribute to a fund, and how much? How would the government decide who qualifies for compensation and who does not? If the fund ran out of money, would taxpayers be expected to pick up the bill?
These questions, and many more like them, have made passage of such a bill nearly impossible for decades. Legislators still try every year to introduce new asbestos-reform legislation. It is widely agreed by all sides of the issue that eventually such a fund will be necessary in order for the hundreds of thousands of asbestos victims to receive any compensation. But as of yet, no one can agree on what the fund will look like or how it will be administered. Meanwhile, every year, an unknown number of asbestos victims die without receiving any compensation whatsoever. Responsible companies enter into and exit from bankruptcy relatively unscathed. And in the greatest irony of all, some corporations continue to reap profits by selling asbestos-containing products. This is because, contrary to what many in the U.S. believe, asbestos-containing products are still legal.
Asbestos, the law and the future
The amphibole asbestos found in Libby, Montana, is not a commercial type of asbestos. It is a naturally occurring contaminant in the vermiculite that was mined near Libby. However, its physiological effects on the human body are very similar to the more common chrysotile asbestos found in many commercial products, from brake pads to ceiling tiles. Commercial asbestos (chrysotile) was once used in literally thousands of different products from the early 1900s up until the early 1980s. This was about the time that the American public began to take a hard look at asbestos, and realized that its health risks far outweighed any commercial benefit that it served. This led in 1989 to the U.S. EPA placing a ban on the importation, manufacture and sale of asbestos-containing products. Most people in the United States believe that this ban is still in place. But this is not the case, and sale of asbestos-containing products is still legal in the U.S. today.
In 1989, a U.S. federal court overturned much of the EPA ban on asbestos products. Today in the U.S., approximately 25 metric tons of asbestos are used every year in products such as brake pads, cement pipes, and ceiling, floor and roof tiles. And although use and exposure to asbestos-containing products has greatly decreased since the 1980s, asbestos exposure still kills an estimated 10,000 Americans every year.
U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington has been working on asbestos issues for years. In 2002, Senator Murray introduced her first bill to ban asbestos in the U.S. Each year since then, she has introduced the bill. So far, the bill has failed to pass. In April 2007 she once again put the bill up for consideration. Senate Bill 1115, “The Ban Asbestos in America Act of 2007” would: (1) ban the importation, manufacture and sale of asbestos and asbestos-containing products, (2) invest in research and treatment of asbestos-related disease, and (3) launch a public awareness campaign to protect American workers and families from asbestos exposure.
Senator Murray kicked off the re-introduction of her bill with a hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on June 12, 2007. In her testimony, Murray made her case for banning asbestos in the U.S. by saying: “Asbestos is deadly, it is devastating to families and communities, and every day that we wait to ban it we are sentencing more Americans to an early and avoidable death. Asbestos exposure, as studies show, kills up to 10,000 Americans each year. How many more Americans have to die before our government does the right thing and bans asbestos?”
Senator Murray’s bill now has 13 cosponsors in the Senate, and a companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives. Some of the organizations that support the bill are: the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, AFL-CIO, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, White Lung Association, International Ban Asbestos Secretariat, Environmental Information Association, Pacific Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the Lincoln County Asbestos Victims Relief Organization.
— Filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr