As a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Mont ., 10 years ago. Tonight, the paper prints its final edition, which means I won’t be able to write about the outcome of the W.R. Grace criminal trial for the newspaper that first revealed what happened to Libby and its people.
I’m going to try to keep up with the trial on this blog. But I thought I’d share with you the final post I wrote for the PI: What the people of northwestern Montana that I’ve spent a decade covering hope they will see coming out of the federal courtroom in Missoula.
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Of course I’m sad that Les Skramstad has passed on.
No one should have to suffer the slow suffocation caused by years of sucking in needle-sharp fibers of asbestos that fester until their lungs are too rigid to gulp the air needed to breathe, or they drown in their own fluids.
Les told me that he’d give up a year of his fleeting life just to sit in the front row of hard, wooden benches in Judge Donald Molloy’s courtroom and watch justice delivered to W.R. Grace and five of its former VPs’ and top managers.
He just didn’t have that year to trade. And I don’t think the lanky cowboy would be really happy sitting there anyhow. He might have gotten some satisfaction glaring at men who, according to thousands of Grace documents, knew that the miners on Zonolite Mountain – Grace ‘s miners, the men who dragged tainted vermiculite out of the earth – were being exposed to high levels of asbestos and would most likely die because of it.
Les wanted to watch them swing. He anguished over the unbearable knowledge that on his work clothes, he brought that poison from the mine into his home and into the lungs of his wife, Norita, and three of his children. He wanted the death penalty for them, and he offered to build the gallows.
He was standing by the courthouse steps in Missoula on Feb. 7, 2005, when U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer read the indictment. Les sat on a chilled concrete bench beside two EPA investigators who patiently explained what the criminal charges were and why they were filed under the Clean Air Act.
But Les heard what he wanted to hear, that Grace and its gang were going to be held accountable for all the atrocities committed during the 30 years they owned the mine, including allowing thousands of pounds of deadly asbestos fibers to fall on the town.
In Les’ mind and in the minds of others I’ve talked to in the past month, Grace and its executives should be standing trial for homicide.
That doesn’t matter in Molloy’s courtroom. Not only does the Clean Air Act not have provisions for homicide charges, but it also has only been around since 1999. Thus, those accused are only being held accountable for actions after that date.
If convicted of all charges, no one will hang. But they can face years in a federal prison.
Norita did sit in court and watch the beginning, as did Les’ sidekick in the long battle against Grace, Gayla Benefield.
Gayla knew there would be no death sentences nor life terms, but she said any time behind bars would be some vindication. Some justice demanded.
She said that as she sat in the courtroom, images gnawed at her soul. She thought of those back in Libby.
“They had already watched friends, family, coworkers and neighbors struggle for a simple breath. They knew that they would die, not a natural death brought on by old age, but by the slow strangulation that follows exposure to something that they were told nothing about,” she recalled.
As she watched the faces of the five Grace executives, she said she wondered if they worried about the uncertainly of their futures.
“Even six months confined in a cell without the luxury of normal life must seem frightening to them,” she thought. “They may miss the birth of a beloved grandchild, the graduation of a family member from the university, the funeral of a family member. Some may not survive.
“For once,” Gayla said, “the finest lawyers and all of the money in the world cannot protect them from reality.”
Norita doesn’t talk much. Caught between Les and Gayla, there wasn’t much of an opportunity.
But with some gentle prodding, she allowed that Les would probably accept the jury’s decision.
“What he needed was justice. That just might happen,” Norita said.
Dropping her voice to a whisper, she added, “What he really wanted was for Grace to apologize, and I don’t believe any of us will live long enough to see that.”