LIBBY, MONT. — LIBBY, Mont. - When Bob Dedrick had a routine chest X-ray before a gall bladder operation, the doctor returned with the results and a question.
"Where do you live?" the doctor asked.
"Libby, Montana," Dedrick said.
"That explains it."
This small town of 2,800 residents in remote northwestern Montana has become shorthand for a public health disaster of tragic proportions - and lingering questions of corporate and governmental culpability.
The scarring that the doctor saw on Dedrick's lungs identified his hometown as clearly as a local accent, signaling that he, too, had inhaled the microscopic fibers of asbestos that swirled through Libby for decades. An estimated one-third of area residents have the tell-tale signs of asbestos-related lung disease, and more than 200 have died from it.
Crews in full biohazard gear have become a common sight in Libby as workers try to eradicate the lingering asbestos that was released into the town as a byproduct of a long dormant mining operation. A flood of lawsuits and legislation before the Senate seeks to sort out who will take responsibility for Libby's slow devastation.
Every Memorial Day residents hold a ceremony in the town cemetery to erect a cross for each victim - 206 as of this year.
"I call up my buddies to go fishing, and they tell me they have to go to a funeral," says Gordon Sullivan, who owns a photo studio.
Beyond the number of victims, what sets Libby apart from other cases of asbestos contamination is that residents with no direct connection to the mining operation - which was shut down in 1990 by its last owner, Columbia, Md.-based W.R. Grace & Co. - are falling ill.
"I just lived here," said Dedrick, 72, a retired construction worker.
He has developed asbestosis, caused when fibers of asbestos are inhaled, lodge in the lungs and cause scarring and hardening of the tissue, which makes breathing increasingly difficult. The first victims here of this disease were those who at some point since 1923 had mined Vermiculite Mountain or worked in its processing operations.
The mountain, about seven miles outside of town, contains the world's largest known deposits of vermiculite, the ore widely used in insulation and potting soil. To the town's great misfortune, though, the mountain was also laced with asbestos. As a result, all the vermiculite extracted and processed in Libby - which at one point produced 80 percent of the world's supply of the ore - was contaminated with toxic asbestos.
Dedrick and his wife, Carrie, lived as children and then as newlyweds in houses blocks from what was called the "popping plant," where flakes of vermiculite extracted from the mountain were heated until they puffed, like popcorn kernels, about 15 times their original size. Venting the plant spewed dust into the surrounding area, which residents now know became filled with asbestos.
To see where the since dismantled plant used to sit is to see how intimately the town of Libby lived with what turned out to be its poisoner: The plant was right on the river bank, next to recreational areas and just blocks from a residential neighborhood and the hospital.
"This is where the swimming pool was," Dedrick says, pointing to an area adjacent to the old plant site. "We were in there swimming, breathing hard, inhaling asbestos. That was the all-purpose field - I played football there, ran track. That's where we had all the big events in town - Loggers Day, the Fourth of July. That's why we got so exposed.
"The plant set right here, and we had a baseball field right here - the backstop was right up against the plant silo," he said. "That was the old hospital, that's where I was born."
Dedrick laughed grimly, thinking how very early in his life he might have started inhaling asbestos.
In a town this small, there was no escaping the vermiculite operation - people flocked to the good-paying, unionized jobs, or they lived nearby, or they simply enjoyed what seemed like the company's good-neighbor largesse - it donated the local vermiculite as fill for the high school's fields and gave away or sold it at reduced prices to residents for use in their homes and gardens.
"People would come up and get it to put in their gardens, their attics," Dedrick recalled. "At the popping plant, they gave it away. Broken bags, you could buy for cheap."
Lerah and Mel Parker in particular knew the value of vermiculite - they owned a nursery business in Libby and were looking to expand it when they came upon 21 acres that Grace was selling. It once housed the company's screening plant, where the mined vermiculite was separated into different sizes. The couple bought it in 1993.
"It looked ideal," Mel Parker said of the land, which was rich with vermiculite that had fallen onto the ground and accumulated over the years on the site. "Vermiculite is good for growing seedlings."
But then in 1999, the Parkers and the rest of Libby learned what else was in the vermiculite.
Media reports - most notably a series by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1999 - revealed rampant asbestos-related illnesses and deaths in Libby from the contaminated vermiculite.
"I was shocked," Lerah Parker said. "We didn't know anything about it until we read about it in the newspaper."
The Environmental Protection Agency dispatched an emergency response team to town to investigate, and it subsequently placed Libby on the National Priority List of hazardous sites eligible for cleanup under the Superfund program.
The Parkers' property needed a particularly extensive cleanup: They had to give up their home - and everything in it - because the entire site had to be razed. More than 180,000 cubic yards of soil had to be taken out and replaced. The Parkers even had to take biohazard training and put on protective gear to be allowed to enter the property while it was being cleaned. Relocated to another home in the area by the EPA, they've been told that they should be able to return this year. They hope to rebuild their home and business.
"It's not going to be the same as before," Lerah Parker said. "But all of Libby is that way."
Today, Libby seems a sad and angry town. It's not just the asbestos. In recent years, the town's major industry, logging, has also fallen on hard times and no longer represents the sure employment it did in the past. While other Montana towns are increasingly making the transition toward the resort and second-home market, Libby fears the notoriety over its asbestos problem will hamper economic development.
Nestled in a crook of the sparkling Kootenai River - the setting of the 1994 Meryl Streep movie The River Wild - and in a valley between several mountain ranges, Libby's natural gifts indeed seem overshadowed by the continuing turmoil over asbestos.
About 105 area residents have personal injury lawsuits against Grace, but the company effectively put those on hold indefinitely when it filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2001.
Additionally, a group of residents has sued the state of Montana, alleging that officials had known since the 1950s that the town's vermiculite operation had unleashed asbestos into the community but failed to alert mine workers or residents of the danger. The lawsuit was dismissed by a District Court judge, but last month, the residents appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to rule this year.
In town, crews work to remove the vermiculite from houses and gardens that EPA tests have found contaminated with asbestos. Ninety sites have been cleaned and the EPA recently informed 1,200 residents that their homes will be next.
$100 million cleanup
The cleanup of Libby could take four more years, said Wendy Thomi, an EPA community involvement coordinator here. The total bill could exceed $100 million by one estimate, and the EPA has sued Grace to recover the cleanup costs. The lawsuit has yet to be decided.
"I was incredulous. I just listened to people here for two hours, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing," Thomi said of her first visit to town in 1999.
Many are shocked that such an enormous problem had festered for so long to so little outside attention. The town's remote location - just below the Canadian border, several hours from the nearest large city, Spokane, Wash. - only partially explains it. Libby, after all, is the hometown of former Gov. Marc Racicot, who is now chairman of President Bush's re-election committee. Racicot, a star on the 1966 Libby Loggers high school basketball team that won the state championship, has said he was unaware of the asbestos problem when he lived in town.
Critics say the mine owners - first the Zonolite Corp. and later W.R. Grace - as well as government officials failed the town and let a dangerous problem run unchecked for decades.
As news reports and several books have documented over the years, state inspectors found asbestos dust of "considerable toxicity" in the vermiculite processing plant in the 1950s, and yet workers were not adequately protected from it. News accounts and books have also reported that Grace officials were aware of the problem as well - the company-sponsored annual X-rays revealed lung abnormalities in its workers, who say they were not told of the results. Grace has said it informed the workers' physicians.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer uncovered a particularly damning Grace memo, marked personal and confidential, which was written by the company's head of safety in 1968. He suggested reassigning workers whose X-rays showed lung abnormalities to jobs where less dust flew around: "If we minimize their exposure to dust ... chances are we may be able to keep them on the job until they retire, thus precluding the high cost of total disability."
Still, the mine continued to operate until 1990, even as more employees were falling ill, followed by their wives, to whom they brought home their dusty work clothes for laundering. Lung problems have also been diagnosed in children and even grandchildren. Eventually, Libby residents began filing lawsuits against Grace - as employees elsewhere in the country were similarly making asbestos cases against it and other companies - and the volume of litigation began bringing the problem to light.
When Grace filed for bankruptcy protection two years ago, it was faced with 120,000 pending lawsuits accusing the company of asbestos-related injury, 105 of which were from Libby.
Grace and other companies in a similar situation are pushing a bill in the Senate that would ban future personal injury lawsuits by asbestos victims. Instead, they would turn for compensation to a $108 billion pool that would be funded by companies that had made or sold asbestos products, such as Grace and Halliburton, the Texas company formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, and insurance companies.
But the bill, which has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and awaits consideration by the full body, has drawn opposition - from insurance companies that say they have to pay too great a share of the fund, trial attorneys who would lose the percentage of settlement fees they receive for filing lawsuits on behalf of victims and some victims who say the amount of the fund is insufficient.
Supporters, however, say the fund would offer victims a better chance of receiving money for their suffering, particularly because many of the companies that have been sued in the past have since filed for bankruptcy, making payouts uncertain.
'Best for everybody'
"This is best for everybody," said William Corcoran, Grace vice president for public and regulatory affairs. "It lays out a case where sick people will be compensated."
Grace has been down a similar path before - as dramatized in the book and movie A Civil Action, a jury found the company liable for dumping toxic chemicals into the water supply of Woburn, Mass., where a cluster of leukemia deaths had been identified. Grace paid $8 million to families who had sued.
In Libby, Grace has spent $13.8 million for cleaning its former processing sites and for a health care program for area residents, company documents show. It expects to spend $6 million elsewhere in the country where Grace shipped vermiculite and operated processing plants, areas where workers have also experienced asbestos-related ailments.
Corcoran declined to discuss the allegations that Grace knew from early in its ownership of the mine that asbestos posed a danger to its employees and area residents and failed to adequately protect them. "What happened in 1963 and 1964 happened," he said. "We're getting back into 'he said,' 'she said.' "
Corcoran said Grace will not abandon Libby residents, and the legislation before the Senate puts town residents in a category that shortens the process by which they can apply for compensation.
"We view Libby as a unique Grace responsibility," he said.
Some, however, are reluctant to put their faith in Grace.
Bob Dedrick, for one, doesn't trust the company enough to avail himself of the free medical care it offers to asbestos victims. Dedrick, whose cousin died of mesothelioma, a lung cancer almost always caused by asbestos exposure, instead goes to a doctor in Spokane and uses his Medicare and supplemental insurance benefits.
"That W.R. Grace is a rotten outfit ... ," he said. "Soon as the bankruptcy goes through, I think they'll pull the plug on their medical program. I have no confidence in it."