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Prosperity Turned to Poison in Mining Town

By Carrie Johnson and Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page A14

LIBBY, Mont. -- When Les Skramstad first reported for work in the mine that looms over this white-capped mountain town, the 23-year-old had the world in front of him.

"I'm telling you, I felt like I could jump over a building if I had to," he said of his days sweeping the floors at the mine site and his nights moonlighting as a country and western crooner.

Mayor Tony Berget said he is eager for his town to get a clean bill of health.

_____Related Story_____
Md. Firm Accused Of Asbestos Coverup (The Washington Post, Feb 8, 2005)

• 1939 Zonolite Co. formed to mine and process vermiculite at Libby mine.

• 1963 W.R. Grace & Co. purchases the mine and other assets from Zonolite for about $9 million.

• 1974 Grace receives first asbestos-related workers' compensation claim in Libby.

• 1977 A Grace-commissioned study of hamsters finds a link between asbestos fibers and cancer. Separately, the first asbestos-related personal injury lawsuits from Libby are filed against Grace.

• 1990 Grace stops mining vermiculite at Libby (processing continues until 1992).

• 1999 EPA arrives in Libby to investigate news report about asbestos-related health crisis and later declares area a Superfund site. EPA has spent $86 million on cleanup. Grace moves headquarters to Columbia from Boca Raton, Fla.

• 2000 Grace initiates medical coverage for Libby residents diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.

• 2001 Grace and 61 domestic subsidiaries file for bankruptcy protection, citing 81 percent spike in asbestos claims from 1999 to 2000. Grace says only 206 of the 325,000 injury claims were from Libby.

• 2005 Federal prosecutors charge Grace with knowingly exposing mine workers and residents in Libby to asbestos and covering up the danger. Seven current and former employees also face charges.

SOURCES: Company and U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana

Norita, his wife, has different memories of the early 1960s -- of dust that spewed into the air, filling her husband's wallet and clinging to his laundered work clothes as she wrung them out to dry in the front room. That dust, now known to be contaminated with a particularly deadly form of asbestos from the mine, eventually sickened them both, they believe, and left two of their children coping with lung abnormalities.

The rail-thin cowboy, now 68, took several halting steps across the maroon carpet before settling heavily into a matching easy chair during a recent interview. A blazing fire in the living room was stoked high to ease his circulation troubles.

Even though Skramstad worked at the mine for less than three years, his job sometimes involved separating the vermiculite ore mined there and the asbestos that clung to it by hand -- increasing the chances his lungs would absorb the spiky asbestos fibers. After he developed a persistent cough in 1996, friends prodded him to visit an out-of-town doctor who diagnosed him with asbestosis and told him he had 10 years to live.

The Skramstad family is one of scores in Libby that have had to deal with diagnoses of asbestos-related disease. This town of fewer than 3,000 amounts to the biggest environmental disaster site in terms of human health that the Environmental Protection Agency has ever faced, government officials said.

Yesterday, federal prosecutors unsealed indictments against W.R. Grace & Co. and seven current and former executives for breaking environmental laws and conspiring to cover up what happened in Libby. Grace, now based in Columbia, and the officials deny the charges.

The criminal prosecution comes as long-awaited vindication for residents such as Mike Noble, 53, who worked at the mine for 21 years. He said his lungs now operate at 67 percent capacity, leaving him short of breath after physical activity.

"We need to tell corporate America, you need to be held responsible," Noble said, sipping coffee from a John Deere mug on a recent snowy morning.

A sign on Highway 2 leading up to Libby from Glacier National Park proclaims that Lincoln County is "better for business." The county, which encompasses Libby and the former Grace mine, also has the highest death rate in the nation from asbestos or asbestos-related conditions, according to evaluations by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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