andrew schneider investigates

March 16, 2009

What kind of justice does Libby want from the criminal trial of W.R. Grace?

Filed under: Asbestos,EPA,Government & corporate wrong-doing,W.R. Grace,Worker Safety — Andrew Schneider @ 21:04

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.

* * * * * * * *

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.

Les and EPA criminal investigators

Les and EPA criminal investigators

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 and Norita outside federal courthouse in Missoula

Gayla and Norita outside federal courthouse in Missoula

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.”

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4 Comments »

  1. There are no words to express the gratitude felt by so many from Libby for the excellent reporting you have done for the past 10 years. It is my personal belief that the executives of WR Grace are without any conscience whatsoever and have always put profits over human life. They treated those hardworking men like disposable tools and cared even less for the innocent citizens of Libby and the surrounding area. They will never apologize. Whatever the outcome of this trial is, at least the public is now more aware of the dangers of asbestos. Those of us (who believe in God) know there is another justice that will take place and I’m sure that Les, my dad, and all of the others who have suffered will be able to be witness to that day of reckoning. All we can say to you is “thank you.”

    Comment by Margy — March 17, 2009 @ 09:35 | Reply

  2. Andrew, Mighty coincidental that your newspaper ceases publication at this time. Anyway, do you think that you or anyone else will cover this trial to its end? I’m really wondering if it will become a buried news item, forever buried. Can you send me an email to let me know your opinion?

    Comment by Scott R. Hite — March 19, 2009 @ 12:46 | Reply

  3. Andrew, I was born and grew up in Libby, but have lived in Seattle since the 1960s. Thank you for all of the great reporting you did on this issue. It made a huge difference to so many people.

    Comment by Alcina — March 24, 2009 @ 19:26 | Reply

  4. “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.”
    – I am confused by this statement. As far as I know the Clean Air Act was enacted under the Nixon administration in 1972. Were you referring to something else? Not trying to be nit-picky, just wanted some clarification. Excellent article otherwise! I am studying environmental and public health in my last quarter of undergrad. You’re writing is highly appreciated by my peers and I.

    Patrick,

    You are almost correct. The Clean Air does go back to the creation of the EPA in the 1970s, however, the CCA provision upon which the knowing endangerment charge is based was not enacted until Nov. 15, 1990. Then, with Grace, remember that we have to allow for the the five year statute of limitations, and about 97 days where the government did something call “tolling” which further modified the cut off date. Please let me know if you need anything else.

    a schneider

    Comment by Patrick Kappler — April 22, 2009 @ 11:00 | Reply


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