Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ask The Sick And Mourning People of Libby Montana What We Should Expect From British Petroleum.

(Libby, Montana, mining operations)

We should ask the residents, the sick, the mourning in the dying town of Libby Montana what we should expect from British Petroleum. The town of Libby was the site of a mine owned by another multinational corporation, W.R. Grace. The mine was full of asbestos material, which Grace knew since the 1950s, but did not bother to tell the workers. Now the people of that small town are sick, many have already died, their graveyards are filling up with people too young to die, and they are the biggest environmental disaster site in the entire nation. Or at least they were. Maybe the Gulf Coast will now claim that title. But what did the residents of this town get as help from the exceedingly rich people who owned the mine? Not much.

As long as we allow for-profit privately-owned corporations to move around our country, our oceans, the world, and loot, pillage, and rape the earth to extract resources, for profit, they will continue to destroy the earth and kill every living thing. Including the humans that work for them. Profit is everything, and nothing else matters to a corporation. And our politicians take bribes from the corporations, then sit back and let them pillage our nation, destroy the environment, and kill our people.

In the early 1900s, the small town of Libby Montana had just a few thousand residents, about the same as today. Some of the residents worked in mining, and some of them worked in timber. One of the mines opened up around that time was for something called zonolite, which is a form of vermiculite. Zonolite would end up being used around the country for home insulation and in fertilizer.

Over the years of mining zonolite, the company that ran the mine realized that the materials being brought out of the mine included a form of asbestos called tremolite. Asbestos is extremely hazardous. But instead of providing the workers and the people in town with warnings, instead of providing special protective work clothes and gear, the company decided they would just keep the mine open, keep the workers digging, and make as much money as possible.

Asbestos in buildings is generally described as friable or non-friable. If it is non-friable, that means it's encased in some protective coating and cannot break free. If it is friable, that means it can float through the air, and the tiniest little particle, a speck, breathed in by a human, can turn into the deadly disease of asbestosis and kill. It is also associated with lung cancer and mesothelioma. In each of those deadly diseases, the lungs become scarred and no longer work properly, they eventually fill up with fluid, and the victim dies of suffocation. Asbestos, or the tremolite which was mined in Libby Montana, was friable, was floating through the air, inhaled by the miners, brought home on their clothes and spread through their homes. It spread through the community, in the air, into the schools and parks, across the roads, into the homes, into the earth.

One of the residents of Libby Montana who worked in the mine and got asbestosis was Les Skramstad. He was very happy to get the job, but he developed a chronic cough after working in the mine for only two years. Then he began having trouble breathing. Finally he went to a doctor. He was tested, and told that he had asbestosis, which was fatal, and there was no cure. Les Skramstad later spoke about the day he got that diagnosis from the doctor:

SKRAMSTAD: So, I went out and got in the car and started for home and I suppose, I guess we got about half way home probably, and I said to Norita [his wife], I said "Jesus you know what?" And she said, "what" I said, "I just got a death sentence."

Les Skramstad lived for 10 years after that initial diagnosis, although his health continued to fail. Instead of just waiting quietly to die, Les Skramstad started speaking out to the people in his community, talking about the fact that this mine which had been a part of their small town for generations, was killing them. A lot of the people did not want to hear about it, because so many of them made their living in that mine. They raised their kids there, they drank the water, they owned homes or land, and they did not want to believe that their entire town was deadly and poisoned. Some people spoke against Les Skramstad, called him a troublemaker and a radical. But he continued to speak to people about this problem until he died. And over time, more and more people in that small town also began being diagnosed with asbestotis, so finally they realized that what Les was telling them was true.

At last report, out of the town of 2700, 1400 had already been diagnosed with lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos, including asbestosis, and 270 had died from the disease.

(Mining operations, Libby, Montana)

The mine was owned by W.R. Grace, a multinational corporation which was also involved in the movie and film "A Civil Action" about another small town, that one in Massachusetts, in which the people got sick and died from toxic wastes dumped into the local river. W.R. Grace fought tooth and nail against the small attorneys representing the homeowners in Massachusetts, and I believe they avoided being held liable.

Once the problems in Libby Montana became public, W.R. Grace put its corporation into bankruptcy to avoid having to pay for the injures to the residents of Libby, or pay for the cleanup of that town. The corporation continues to do business, but its assets are protected by the bankruptcy court. In the meantime, guess who gets to foot the bill to conduct investigations and try to figure out how to clean up the town of Libby? The taxpayers of this country. The corporation loots the resources, takes all the money, and leaves it to the working people to pay for the damage they cause.

Watching the lackadaisical response of British Petroleum to its oil rigs gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing everything that is living for hundreds of miles, destroying the coastal land, putting people out of business, dumping dispersants into the water that could be even worse in the long run, exposing thousands of people to chemical cocktails with unknown future health damage, I thought of Libby Montana and W.R. Grace.

The conclusion is obvious: these corporations steal, loot and pillage, pay the local residents pennies for their labor, then they walk away when their looting causes massive environmental destruction, and kills many of the local residents from cancer and related diseases. They take the resources and the money, the working people die, and the taxpayers pay to clean up the corporate damage. As long as we allow privately-owned for-profit corporations to conduct these types of businesses, they will continue to destroy the planet and kill the animals, plants, and humans. And they don't care one bit.

Here's an excerpt from an article that ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper about Les Skramstad when he died:

A bittersweet farewell to a champ of asbestos fight (1/27/07 by David McCumber, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Managing Editor)

Cowboys are supposed to be able to sing, sweet and clear and honest like the high-country air they breathe.

When I last heard Les Skramstad sing, at the American Legion club in Libby, Mont., his vocal cords were still tuned true, somewhere west of Willie and north of Merle, but he kept his lips up against the mike, and the amp was cranked to the max. His lungs were scarred with entirely too much high-country air, not clear and honest but laden with asbestos and corporate denials, and he could barely push enough breath to be heard.

Les ... had worked at the mine for only two years, and had been diagnosed with asbestosis -- the gradual, and fatal, thickening of the lungs caused by embedded asbestos fibers.

Les was a simple man, a cowboy, a mechanic, a millwright and a bar singer who raised his kids in the beautiful Cabinet Mountains of western Montana. He never dreamed they'd be in danger there.

Les won the first jury verdict against W.R. Grace, the company that had purchased the mine and ran it for decades -- not telling the miners about the danger they faced.

(Libby Montana: memorial to the residents who have died from asbestosis)

A few days after [the first stories about Libby Montana and the asbestos problems] ran in the P-I, an Environmental Protection Agency emergency response team showed up -- expecting to find the newspaper account was wrong. What they found instead was the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Eventually the federal government would do a health screening in Libby that showed nearly a third of the town -- more than 1,500 people -- showed signs of lung abnormalities that could signal asbestos-related disease.

After the P-I stories ran, Les kept up the pressure. He became personal friends with the then-governor of Montana, Judy Martz, who, in an act of considerable political courage for a conservative Republican, put Libby on the Superfund list. Les was on a first-name basis with U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and even traveled to the U.S. Capitol, wearing his trademark Resistol hat and a wild Western shirt, to lobby Congress on behalf of asbestos victims.

What turned Les from a soft-spoken cowboy into a hard-nosed activist was not his own health. It was the fact that his wife, Norita, and three of his children also have been diagnosed with the fatal disease.
Les told me that he loved his job at the mine. "I loved it so much that even if they had told me that I was endangering my life, I would probably have stayed.

"But if they had told me it was killing my wife and family, too, I would have run like hell."

So long, Les. We admired your courage and determination. We'll miss your voice, so sweet and clear and angry.

Here's an update from Democracy Now with Amy Goodman:


  1. Libby is such a beautiful town and so sad what happened there. You would never know something so devastating happened though just by driving thru the town as it is a quaint little Montana town.

  2. Les Skramstad was and always will be an insperation to me, not just because he was my grandfather, but because of the amazing fight that he put up and continues to put up even through his death. I miss him and love him everyday and I am rather happy that his story continues to help others. I am rather glad that no one has let this issue drop s so many people have met the same demise as my grandfather has. Thank you for this blog.

  3. Amanda: I'm so sorry for your loss. Thank you for your comment. This is such an important story, and your grandfather must have been a wonderful man. I hope his story inspires other people to speak out in favor of the rights of communities to have decent work, healthy work environments, limit toxic exposure, and hold corporations responsible when they destroy communities and murder citizens.

  4. I had friends that moved up to Libby from Las Vegas. Vince & Becky Silvestri and they both had/have mesothelioma (sp). Vince passed away from it and Ihave not heard from Becky for Months now. Did not know this danger existed up there. So sad.