By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Les Skramstad, 70, a former mineworker whose early suspicions helped reveal that asbestos from a vermiculite mine poisoned the air and soil and killed hundreds of residents of the northwestern Montana town of Libby, died Jan. 21 at his home of mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Mr. Skramstad worked at the vermiculite mine from 1959 to 1962, before it was bought by the W.R. Grace Co. of Columbia. He received a diagnosis of asbestosis in 1996, and he began noticing that 130 of the men he worked with 35 years earlier were dying in a strangely similar manner. He tried without success to alert local and state authorities, and finally sued W.R. Grace. He won the first jury award in Libby against the company.
But his warnings were not heeded until a Seattle newspaper exposé in 1999 brought in a squad of Environmental Protection Agency investigators, who found both dangerous levels of asbestos and company documents that showed officials knew of the danger to workers for more than 30 years. At least 295 people in the town of 2,700 have died of asbestos-related diseases, 40 to 60 times the national average.
With a latency period of 10 to 40 years, asbestos-related disease lingers like a ticking time bomb for residents of Libby, a small town set astraddle the Kootenai River in the Cabinet mountain range close to the Canadian border. When the EPA declared the town a Superfund site, it called the contamination "the most horrific environmental disaster in this country's history," exceeding such nefarious sites as the copper mines of Butte, Mont., Cleveland's Cuyahoga River and New York's Love Canal.
Mr. Skramstad organized a victims' support organization, lobbied Congress for relief for those who could not pay their medical bills and guided government investigators who indicted Grace and seven of its former managers two years ago on charges of conspiring to conceal the health risks posed by the mine.
He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005 that he often dreamed about a long row of wooden gallows on an abandoned mine on Zonolite Mountain. He wanted to see the company bosses punished for what they did.
Vermiculite is a lightweight mineral used in insulation and in garden soil. It was found in 1880, and the mine on Zonolite Mountain once produced 80 percent of the world's supply. It was used in 35 million homes throughout the United States and in the World Trade Center in New York. What was unknown at the time was that some of the vermiculite contained tremolite, a rare and dangerous form of asbestos whose microscopic spears, when embedded in lungs, eventually deprives victims of oxygen and suffocates them.
The EPA estimated that Grace's Libby facilities discharged at least 5,000 pounds of asbestos a day into the air -- the dust spreading as far as 30 miles -- until it was closed in 1990. A wide-ranging health survey in 2001 showed that almost half of former mineworkers had lung problems and as many as 30 percent of area residents had lung abnormalities. Many had no exposure to asbestos other than breathing Libby's air.
Grace, a $1.6 billion chemical and building materials company, which paid tens of millions in individual claims, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001, citing asbestos-related claims in Libby and elsewhere. The firm lost its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in October to avoid a $54 million bill to clean up the mine's asbestos.
Mr. Skramstad, who started in the mine as a sweeper, remembered six to 10 inches of dust on the floor and suspended particles everywhere. The dust was so fine that it got in his hair, in his ears and inside his wallet. He carried the dust home and hugged his children. Now his wife, Norita Skramstad, and three of his five grown children have asbestosis. Survivors also include 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
"If they'd just come out and said, 'Hey, you're dealing with a deadly product here, it's going to kill you,' then it would have been up to me. If they would've even hinted that, I would have quit before I even started," Mr. Skramstad told ABC's Nightline program in November 2005. "Because nobody in their right mind would do a job that involved taking a product home that they were working with and infecting their family. I mean, that's -- that's unbelievable for anyone to do something like that."