Montana Town Awaits Asbestos Trial

Eva Thompson and her memorial garden i i

hide captionEva Thompson keeps a memorial garden outside her home in Libby, Mont. The three crosses are for her parents and husband, all of whom died of asbestos-related diseases.

Jeff Brady, NPR
Eva Thompson and her memorial garden

Eva Thompson keeps a memorial garden outside her home in Libby, Mont. The three crosses are for her parents and husband, all of whom died of asbestos-related diseases.

Jeff Brady, NPR
Norita Skramstad holds her husbands cowboy hat. i i

hide captionNorita Skramsted's husband was one of the local activists who exposed the health problems experienced by workers at the W.R. Grace mine. Les Skramsted died in January 2007. Norita plans to place his cowboy hat on a chair in the courtroom when Grace executives go on trial.

Norita Skramstad holds her husbands cowboy hat.

Norita Skramsted's husband was one of the local activists who exposed the health problems experienced by workers at the W.R. Grace mine. Les Skramsted died in January 2007. Norita plans to place his cowboy hat on a chair in the courtroom when Grace executives go on trial.

Residents of the small town of Libby, Mont., are looking ahead to a trial of W.R. Grace & Company, which federal prosecutors say conspired to cover up information that its mine was exposing people to dangerous asbestos. At least 200 people have died.

Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restored criminal indictments against W.R. Grace executives. One of the executives has died and others have left the company. If convicted, they could face prison time.

Libby resident Eva Thompson welcomed the court's decision. Thompson's husband, father and mother all died from asbestos-related diseases. Thompson has created what she calls her "memorial park" for them in the yard beside her house.

"This way, maybe we can actually get, I won't say justice, but it will be close," Thompson said.

A company spokesman said a judge has asked all sides not to talk with reporters. But W.R Grace has long held that its executives did not know their vermiculite mine was hurting people.

Vermiculite is used primarily for insulation and as a soil amendment. Itis considered harmless. But the vermiculite near Libby also contains deadly levels of asbestos. The tainted vermiculite can be found everywhere and cleaning it up is a decade-long chore.

'It's Awful'

To clean vermiculite in residents' soil, workers in protective suits and breathing masks dig up lawns and haul away the tainted earth.

Workers told Libby resident Clinton Hagen it would take them three weeks to scrape one foot of soil off his lawn.

Hagen said he was exposed to asbestos at home — working in the yard — and at his railroad job.

A clinic in town that specializes in asbestos-related diseases now has 1,800 patients, this in a county with only 20,000 residents. And the number is expected to grow because it can take 10 years for some related diseases to show up.

Paul Peronard with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said these diseases can be very painful.

"If you had to put the list of ways to die, this would be nowhere close to the way to go. It's awful," Peronard said.

Although business owners in Libby worry tourists will stay away, Peronard said it's safe to visit.

Front Row Seat

Around town, you won't find anyone more pleased with the ruling against W.R Grace than Gayla Benefield. She was the first to raise concerns about health problems in Libby two decades ago.

"Justice to me is seeing Grace held accountable and responsible for these people," Benefield said.

Benefield was joined by Les Skramstad in the 1990s. He was a passionate advocate for local victims of asbestos exposure. Skramstad died last January from a form of cancer caused by asbestos.

For the first time since his death, his widow Norita Skramstad is speaking publicly. She welcomed the appeals court ruling and said it's time the W.R Grace executives faced a jury.

"Me and you couldn't get away with that if we had something in our yard that could be a potential hazard to somebody and kill 'em," Skramstad said. "They'd prosecute us right away."

Skramstad plans to move out of the mountains and back to the prairie in Kansas where she was raised. But she'll return when there's a trial.

"Les always wanted to be in the front row — listen to 'em try to lie their way out of it. His cowboy hat's going on the chair in the front row if we ever get to trial," she said.

The company could still appeal the Ninth Circuit decision, but no plans to do so have been announced.

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