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Long time coming

Asbestos victims vindicated by Grace indictment

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Four days after President George W. Bush derided “frivolous” asbestos lawsuits in his Great Falls appearance, the U.S. government filed an asbestos claim of its own against W.R. Grace, the mining company that operated the Libby vermiculite mine that has led to more than 200 asbestos-related deaths so far. The government’s suit seeks damages of $280 million, or double the amount W.R. Grace made from the Libby mine in after-tax profits, as well as prison time for seven Grace employees, including up to 70 years for former Libby mine manager Alan Stringer and up to 55 years for Robert Bettacchi, a Grace senior vice president, and Jack Wolter, a vice president of Grace’s Construction Products Division. Another senior vice president, Robert Walsh, faces up to five years of prison time, as do three other managerial-level Grace employees.

Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer called the 1,200 asbestos-related abnormalities the government seeks to hold Grace accountable for “a human and environmental tragedy” in his announcement of the indictment at the Missoula County Courthouse on Monday, Feb. 7.

Lori Hanson, the special agent in charge of the EPA’s regional office of criminal investigation in Denver, declined to comment until after the trial. Similarly, Grace spokesman Greg Euston declined to comment on the indictment, but the company has issued a statement saying that Grace “categorically denies any criminal wrongdoing.”

“We look forward to setting the record straight in a court of law,” the statement reads, a sentiment echoed—for much different reasons—by Libby resident Les Skramstad, a former Grace worker who has been disabled, and is now slowly dying, from asbestos exposure.

“My whole life now surrounds getting some kind of justice out of the corporate world, and this [indictment] was a beginning to that,” says Skramstad, who unsuspectingly brought fibers from the mine home on his clothing and now finds that his wife and two of his children have also been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases.

“I probably won’t live long enough to see the trial start, but I’m going to try,” Skramstad says.

Skramstad traveled to Missoula to hear the charges read, as did Libby victims’ advocate Gayla Benefield, who watched her parents die with shriveled lungs due to asbestos exposure. Benefield and her husband, as well as several other family members, have been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, and the advocate is pleased that the indictment includes details of Grace’s “donating” mine tailings to several local schools for athletic tracks or, in the case of Plummer Elementary School, where nine of Benefield’s grandchildren were exposed, as foundation for an outdoor ice rink.

“This is probably the most heartless thing that I can imagine that was done to this community,” Benefield says.

Should the case go to trial, Grace’s biggest obstacle may be its own internal documents, memos and studies amassed by government prosecutors.

According to the indictment, which charges Grace with conspiracy and several counts of knowing endangerment, wire fraud and obstruction of justice, Grace conducted at least five studies since 1976 that should have led to serious health warnings. Instead, according to cited Grace memos, the corporation issued statements directly contradictory to the findings of its own health studies, such as defendant Henry Eschenbach’s assurance that Grace had “no reason to believe there is any risk” attached to Libby vermiculite. Eschenbach was Grace’s Industrial Chemicals Group director of health, safety and toxicology from 1977 to 1996 and, according to a memo cited in the indictment, he deemed the results of a 1982 study that uncovered unusually high rates of death from respiratory cancer “no surprise.”

Despite several seemingly damning memos, Grace’s newly released statement claims that the company, which boasts annual sales of approximately $2 billion, “is supportive of the citizens of Libby.”

Benefield isn’t buying it.

“For 25 years, at any point they could’ve helped this community,” she says. “Instead, they left us to die. All Grace had to do was say, ‘Oh my God, what did we do to that town?’ But with their corporate mentality, they just continued to produce the material. And for that I do hold them at fault.”

Skramstad says the damages sought are welcomed but not enough.

“All of us victims have had to pay with our lives or will pay with our lives,” he says. “We can’t pay a fine and go to some jail and sit there for X number of years. Our only alternative is death.”

And, Skramstad adds, the death that awaits him will be a cruel ordeal.

“One thing you’ve got to understand, when you get close to the end of the road, you can’t just go to sleep and not wake up. It’s a slow suffocation process. Imagine yourself with a rope around your neck every day and someone kept tightening it and you weren’t able to grab the rope. Asbestos disease is not a peaceful way to die. It’s just a horrible, horrible death.”

For those in Libby, it’s also a death that remains unrecognized by the federal Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, because Libby’s asbestosis may be caused by a different fiber than the “traditional” asbestosis recognized by the bill (see “Unsanctioned Sickness,” Sept. 9, 2004).

Though Benefield agrees that the damages sought are only a drop in the bucket for W.R. Grace, she sees the new charges as only one of many steps to justice.

“This is like Woburn, Massachu-setts,” where Grace was successfully sued for contaminating the town’s water supply, a struggle portrayed in the 1998 John Travolta film A Civil Action. “It’s not to say that we’ll break Grace, but they’re the ones that are on the defensive now,” she says. “Investors will back off and things are not going to be good for them. This is going to be the year that things will finally come to pass.” For Libby’s sick and dying, it’s been a long time coming.

mike@missoulanews.com

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