Death in the attic: Libby in the spotlight? Must be an election year


The nice thing about election years is that they often spark politicians to think more about the well being of their constituents and less about the Beltway Bandits of Washington, D.C. That appears to be the case with Montana Sen. Max Baucus, who just this week threatened to subpoena the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its failure to declare a public health emergency in response to the dangers of asbestos—and not just the asbestos in Libby, but the asbestos in the attics of millions of homes across America where the silent killer lurks.

Montanans are familiar with the tragedy of asbestos-caused deaths and sickness in the vicinity of Libby, where W.R. Grace & Co. mined vermiculite for a variety of products. Although he was raised in Libby, former Montana Attorney General and Gov. Marc Racicot turned a blind eye to the asbestos-caused health problems in his hometown—even as a host of lawsuits outlined Grace’s deliberate cover-up of the health effects of the tremolite asbestos contained in the company’s vermiculite products.

Near the end of Racicot’s second term as governor, Andrew Schneider of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer blew the lid off the story with a series of brilliant investigative reports that left no doubt about either the fatal toxicity of the asbestos or the company’s deliberate cover-up of that information. Through meticulous research, Schneider exposed the way in which W.R. Grace & Co. simply turned its back on the health of their workers and the residents of Libby and put its profits first. That hundreds have died from asbestos poisoning in Libby—and that more will die in the future—is no longer in question, it’s a certainty.

Once Schneider pulled back the covers and the ugly truth became known, the EPA moved into the area, did some testing, and declared Libby a Superfund site, which opened the door to federal spending on the environmental and human health catastrophe.

Eventually the EPA decided that Libby was clean. But shortly thereafter an 8-inch seam of buried asbestos was discovered and the entire matter was again raised to the light of public scrutiny. This time—and during an election year—then-Sen. Conrad Burns suddenly got his panties in a knot over the EPA’s failure to do a complete cleanup. Hoping for re-election, Burns went on to raise a stink about the layer of asbestos. But he conveniently swept his earlier attempts to pass legislation that would cap damages levied against W.R. Grace & Co. under the rug, perhaps hoping Montanans would simply forget that he, like so many others, had worked to shield the corporate villains instead of protecting the innocent victims.

Comes now the year 2007. Burns is gone and Max Baucus is up for re-election to the U.S. Senate, and suddenly Libby is in the news again. This time around it’s not some layer of asbestos that’s the main concern, but a series of 5-year-old documents that supposedly contain information about why the EPA decided not to declare a public health emergency—a declaration that, according to Baucus, would have meant a better cleanup and more protection for area residents.

“I want to know what the heck happened here. The fact of the matter is a public health emergency should have been declared in 2002,” Baucus told reporters. “I want to know who decided not to and why. People are dying in Libby. They deserve to know the truth.”

But the larger truth, and one that’s many times uglier than the Libby story, is that millions of American families scattered across the country may be exposed to lethal doses of asbestos from the insulation in their attics and walls. As Andrew Schneider did follow-up research on the Libby story, he discovered that W.R. Grace & Co. had marketed millions of pounds of its asbestos-containing vermiculite products throughout the nation. In 2000, Schneider wrote a special report for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, titled “Health warning on attic asbestos,” that will send a shiver down the spine of anyone who has used, handled or lived with this material in their home.

According to the report, Dr. Hugh Sloan of the U.S. Public Health Service wrote that “Internal company documentation and recent testing of residential insulation material reveals that even minimal handling by workers or residents poses a substantial health risk.” Those internal documents, written by W.R. Grace’s own scientists, estimated that 30,000 additional lung cancers would result from exposure to asbestos by those “involved in the application of our products.”

Following the release of Sloan’s warning, the Washington State Department of Health urged residents to “leave it alone if you can” and to hire professionals if they wanted it removed. The agency also warned that areas where Zonolite is present need to be “air-locked so that all the air is clean before circulating back out of the cleanup zone to avoid cross-contamination of other parts of the house,” adding, “Basically, if you try to do it yourself without proper training, you’ll contaminate the daylights out of yourself, your home and the people in the home.”

Following the story and the state’s warnings, the EPA recommended that “all vermiculite attic insulation be treated as though it were contaminated with asbestos and that appropriate precautions be used.” That means death waits in the attics and walls of at least 53,000 homes in Washington state and an as many as 35 million homes nationwide that contain W.R. Grace’s Zonolite.

The EPA says it will get the documents to Baucus by the end of August. My hunch is that once Max realizes the extent of the problem, he’ll understand that taking care of Libby is just a first step toward bringing justice to the millions of other unsuspecting victims in Montana and the rest of the nation—a justice too-long overdue.

Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at


Add a comment