Wasting Libby

THE TITLE of Andrea Peacock’s Wasting Libby: The True Story of How the WR Grace Corporation Left a Montana Town to Die (and Got Away With It) tells the gist of the story. What follows is a fact-packed, kaleidoscopic account of the author’s multi-year investigation of corporate malfeasance in a remote mining town in the northwest corner of Montana. The corporation is WR Grace & Co. The product it mined was vermiculite. And the element that poisoned Libby is a deadly type of asbestos called tremolite, which was released during the mining and processing of ore. To this day, Libby lives under threat that a cloud of asbestos-laden dust might waft over town whenever a big wind kicks up.

Libby has not been the only victim of Grace’s product. Distributed around the United States and beyond in home insulation, plaster, and garden products, it was the same asbestos-laden insulation that dusted the air when the World Trade Center collapsed. But Peacock’s story is about the isolated town of nineteen thousand, which for over thirty years was supported by Grace’s vermiculite operation. In quiet, precise, and well-wrought prose, Peacock describes Libby’s history from its logging camp beginnings to its present ailing economy. She lets the voices of whistle-blowing women, dying old miners, and company bosses reveal their stories through candid interviews, while doctors, scientists, and EPA officials substantiate the facts.

The facts are heartbreaking. They describe the prolonged suffering of hundreds of residents from diseases such as asbestosis (where lungs are slowly destroyed by fibrosis and plaque) and a rare incurable cancer called mesothelioma. As of 2007, Libby counted 450 cases of asbestos-related disease, including 274 casualties. And the count continues to rise. The victims include miners and factory workers and wives who washed their husbands’ dusty clothes. Some victims are kids playing in asbestos-laden dirt, others are high-school students running laps on a company-donated vermiculite track. Libby’s plight was a dirty secret known by company bosses and suspected by bureaucrats, including Montana’s ex-governor Marc Racicot, who grew up there. But the town’s leading citizens and even its workers were complicit in the silence, fearing the end of tourism and the end of jobs. By the 1980s, public awareness of the dangers of asbestos led to loss of clients and increasing safety regulations, which made Grace’s business unprofitable. The company closed its mine in 1990 and would later declare bankruptcy.

Peacock’s book ends with Grace’s exposure by an investigative reporter who got wind of the story in 1999 and did not let go. All hell broke loose and the EPA stepped in, starting a Superfund cleanup that is still in process. Finally, in 2009, the State of Montana brought WR Grace & Co. and three of its top officials to criminal trial. For reasons Peacock explains with great finesse, the jury came back with a verdict of “not guilty.” Wasting Libby is a lesson and a warning — a wake-up call. Hopefully, the next study of corporate greed and its human consequences will end with a ‘Guilty’ verdict.