Montana Town Awaits Asbestos Trial Federal prosecutors allege that W.R. Grace knew its mine in Libby, Mont., exposed people to asbestos, blamed in at least 200 deaths. An appeals court recently restored criminal indictments against company executives — a decision cheered by town residents.
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Montana Town Awaits Asbestos Trial

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Montana Town Awaits Asbestos Trial

Montana Town Awaits Asbestos Trial

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Federal prosecutors say a mining company in a small Montana town knew the area was being exposed to dangerous asbestos, but kept it secret. A recent court ruling restored criminal indictments against WR Grace & Company executives. They're accused of conspiring to cover up information that its mine was killing people in Libby, Montana. At least 200 people have died.

NPR's Jeff Brady talked with some of their survivors.

JEFF BRADY: When 68-year-old Eva Thompson wants to spend time with her husband, she heads out the garage door through a metal gate and across a green lawn to a grove of trees.

Ms. EVA THOMPSON (Homeowner, Libby, Montana): This is my little memorial park.

BRADY: There are four white crosses, one each for her husband, her father, her mother and a friend's father. They all died from asbestos-related diseases, and she says her remaining family members suffer from the same illness. So she was pleased to see the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision. A panel of judges ruled that prosecutors may pursue criminal charges against Grace executives. One of them has since died, others have left the company, but if convicted, they could face prison time.

Ms. THOMPSON: This way, maybe we can actually get - I won't say justice, but it will be close.

BRADY: A company spokesman says a judge has asked all sides not to talk with reporters, but WR 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. It's harmless. But the vermiculite near Libby also contains deadly levels of asbestos. The tainted vermiculite can be found everywhere, cleaning it up as a decade-long chore.

(Soundbite of vacuum machine)

BRADY: I'm just outside Libby, standing in front of a two-story yellow house, a couple of chickens walking around the front yard. They don't seem to be disturbed by this very loud machine called the hurricane. Essentially, it's a big vacuum, and crews in protective suits are using it to suck asbestos-tainted insulation out of the attic.

A few miles away, Clinton Hagen watches as a front-end loader tears up his yard. Two men in white HAZMAT suits are digging down a foot and hauling the tainted soil away. It's slow work.

Mr. CLINTON HAGEN (Homeowner, Libby, Montana): They said about three weeks.

BRADY: So what do you do for three weeks? You don't have a house for three weeks.

Mr. HAGEN: Well, we're stubborn Norwegians. We can still use the back door.

BRADY: Hagen says he was exposed to asbestos here at home working in the yard and at his railroad job. A clinic in town that specializes in asbestos-related diseases now has eighteen hundred patients, this in a county with only 20,000 residents. And the number is expected to grow since it can take 10 years for some diseases to show up.

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

Mr. PAUL PERONARD (On-Scene Coordinator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency): You know, if you had to put the list of ways to die, this would be nowhere close to the way to go. It's awful. I mean, I known people up there, you know, who I've watched, you know, develop symptoms and then, you know, get to that end stage. And it's just got awful.

BRADY: Each time this story makes news again, local business owners say it hurts them. Tourism and outdoor recreation are important industries here, and they worry people will be afraid to visit. But Peronard with the EPA says it's safe to visit here.

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.

Ms. GAYLA BENEFIELD (Former LIUNA Dispatcher): Seeing them - justice to me is seeing Grace held accountable and responsible for these people knowing that my grandchildren and even my great grandchildren will be provided with medical care in the best possible thing that science can offer.

BRADY: Benefield was joined by Les Skramstad in the 1990s. He was a passionate advocate for local victims of asbestos exposure. He 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 WR Grace executives faced a jury.

Ms. NORITA SKRAMSTAD (Homeowner, Libby, Montana): 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 them. They'd prosecute us right away.

BRADY: 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.

Ms. SKRAMSTAD: Les always wanted to be in the front row - listen to them 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.

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

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Libby, Montana.

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