Asbestos aftermath: 20 years later, health crisis still casts shadow in Libby

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  • Downtown Libby on Tuesday, Nov. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Downtown Libby on Tuesday, Nov. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • Downtown Libby on Tuesday, Nov. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Downtown Libby on Tuesday, Nov. 12. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

When Jinnifer Mariman first skimmed her client list at McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & Lacey Law after joining the firm last year, she was hard-pressed to find a name she didn’t recognize.

Her school teacher, her dad’s longtime buddy and family friend, a few classmates, a nearby neighbor. They all made the list and they were all from Libby.

And although Mariman had grinded her way through law school with the hope that one day she might represent such people in court, she said there wasn’t much that could have adequately prepared her for that moment.

“I was glad I was sitting down the first time I read the names. It wasn’t just a client list, it was my hometown,” Mariman said. “It’s not easy to look up and see another one of my high school classmates standing in front of my desk, wanting to know how we can help them.”

Mariman’s childhood friends make up a handful of the more than 2,100 clients who have walked through the doors of the Kalispell law firm in the last 25 years with stories of environmental injustice. And although each personal account may be slightly different from the next, there is always a common theme among the cases.

The clients have all been diagnosed with Libby amphibole asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma — diseases that have affected the lives of thousands of men, women and children in Lincoln County and claimed the lives of hundreds.

The diagnoses and deaths are the result of mining operations that once brought prosperity and life to Libby and surrounding areas. For nearly 70 years, the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine near the town served as the economic backbone of the region. At its height, the booming operation supplied an estimated 80% of the world’s vermiculite, a mineral primarily used in building insulation and as a soil conditioner.

But what Grace executives knowingly kept under wraps for decades was that the vermiculite was contaminated with amphibole asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that doubles as a toxic dust when disturbed. Yet those with the knowledge to prevent a tragedy sat idly by as asbestos dust permeated Libby’s streets, parks, businesses and homes. It wasn’t until dozens of workplace injury and wrongful death lawsuits came forward that the company halted operations in 1990.

“Libby is the result of what happens when money, greed and indifference become American politics. Libby didn’t fall through the cracks. They were pushed through the cracks.”

That’s according to one source quoted in a 2001 article by the Daily Inter Lake who, along with his brother, had been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease. Another source described W.R. Grace’s actions as “a death sentence” to thousands.

Although the mining operations ceased decades ago, the 20- to 50-year latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases means doctors are still diagnosing individuals on a weekly basis, and will be for some time to come.

As for what Mariman and other lawyers can do for those impacted, she said that’s a matter of determining what one thinks justice should look like.

“In the legal system we are largely limited as to what claims we can pursue and what we can recover,” Mariman said. “Usually what we can recover is money, but no amount of money is going to make your lungs work better. There is no amount of money that is going to bring your loved ones back.”

If there is one person who understands that money is not synonymous with life’s other riches, it’s Gayla Benefield, the Libby native whose gripping testimony of loss at the hands of W.R. Grace and her legal efforts that ensued pushed Libby’s asbestos crisis into the national limelight two decades ago.

At the forefront of that coverage was the Daily Inter Lake, whose reporters Lynnette Hintze and Chery Sabol first broke the news on Nov. 14, 1999. They described it as the story that was “dying to be told.”

At the time, most people in Libby weren’t willing to discuss the strange pulmonary diseases that seemed to hang over their town, claiming the lives of their friends, families and neighbors. Some still felt loyalty to the mine that had provided good-paying jobs. But several loud leaders in search of justice for the dead and dying made up for everyone else’s silence.

At the helm of those efforts was Benefield.

“For too many years, too many people were willing to sit around while Grace buried their loved ones,” Benefield said. “There isn’t a single person, whether you choose to believe it or not, whose friends and families weren’t impacted by this.”

Benefield’s father Perley died from what would later diagnosed as asbestos-related disease in 1974, just a few days shy of what would have marked a 20-year career at the Libby mine. So for nearly two decades, Perley would come home from the mine and his wife, Margaret, would shake the asbestos dust from his coat into the air that Benefield and her siblings would breathe.

“To every blue-collar worker at the time, the mine was a way to feed their families,” Benefield said. “But if someone had told them their work might kill their families, I don’t think anyone would have signed on.”

Margaret died from the same toxin as Perley — a final straw that spurred Benefield, now 76, to take legal action against Grace. In 1998, a jury awarded her $250,000 in a wrongful death claim for her mother after she presented reams of evidence that Grace officials had failed to disclose that health risks were associated with mine work.

One year later, Libby’s crisis made headlines nationwide after a story by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, based on Benefield’s research, case and testimony, detailed the unfolding of what would later be deemed the nation’s worst man-made environmental disaster.

The coverage brought doctors, lawyers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state officials and others to the area. Libby made the EPA’s National Priorities List, prompting the start of what many would come to see as an invasive cleanup of their town. The Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) was erected to take care of the growing number of patients, many of whom still questioned science and research.

Benefield, whose spitfire attitude has not faded one bit despite later receiving a diagnosis of asbestos disease herself and losing her husband to the illness, responded with questions of her own when asked if she regrets going to the media in 1999. “How long would this have gone on? How many people would have breathed in the dust?”

And two decades later, one has to ask, what has changed? How has Libby recovered?

When reduced to numbers, law firms and clinics say that although new patients still filter through their doors, the rate at which they do is slowing - a pattern that would suggest the disease’s grip might be loosening and is one that many stakeholders see as promising.

“We are seeing a decline in new cases, which is a really positive thing,” said Roger Sullivan, a senior partner with McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan & Lacey. “I think I speak for all of us here when I say it would be a good thing if another client suffering from asbestos-related disease didn’t have to walk through our doors.”

As the number of new clients seeking legal representation and medical attention slowly decreases, the EPA also is wrapping up cleanup efforts.

This fall, officials announced they were preparing to hand off a large portion of the project to the state and local government. The announcement elicited a wide range of emotions from those in the community. Some are nervous that decontamination isn’t complete and some are happy to have big government depart their town, but the majority see the partial hand-off as a chance to change Libby’s identity.

Mark Peck, one of three county commissioners for Lincoln County who is based in Libby, calls it “asbestos fatigue.” He said while many have come to accept the EPA’s presence and understand its cleanup efforts, their departure symbolizes a fresh start.?“We are tired of being seen as the sick and dying town,” Peck said. “There is a new energy here. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s everywhere, and it isn’t asbestos dust.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com

More from this series

DECONTAMINATION OF LIBBY MINE AND FOREST REMAIN

CLEANUP CHALLENGED BY DISTRUST IN GOVERNMENT, RESEARCH

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