Verdict is justice deferred for many Libby residents
LIBBY (May 10, 2009) — The environmental criminal inquiry into the most sprawling industrial disaster in U.S. history ended in the failed prosecution of a company charged with poisoning a small Montana town. Some residents of the town say no judge’s gavel can close their case, that death may be the only end to their trial. Justice on earth, they say, may be as simple as help paying the medical bills.
Chemical giant W.R. Grace & Co. was indicted in 2005 on charges that the company and several former executives knowingly endangering the residents of Libby, Mont., for conspiring to keep the dangers of its mining operations secret and then obstructing EPA investigation into the situation. The trial began on Feb. 19, 2009.
The verdict came down at noon on Friday, May 8. After one full day of deliberation, the jury acquitted all defendants of all charges. As the victorious defense teams left Montana for homes in Chicago and Boston, trial coverage faded from the news, but the three-month trial and its dramatic conclusion reverberated through the town of Libby.
Two hundred miles north of the federal courthouse in Missoula, the people of Libby just want the medical costs associated with asbestos-related ailments covered. Acquittal or no, they feel W.R. Grace still has a moral obligation to the town.
“I want to be compensated for my health care,” said Sally Fuchs, who moved to Libby in 1968 and is the third generation of her family to suffer from respiratory illness. “I’m not asking for millions of dollars, I’m asking for them to cover my inhaler, my visits to the CARD clinic … no more hassles,” she said, referring to Libby’s Center for Asbestos Related Disease.
Fuchs, who is diagnosed with pleural plaque, a frequent precursor to asbestosis in Libby, said that she has yet to be compensated for her medical care despite being on the Libby Asbestos Medical Plan for years.
LAMP was established in 2003 with $2.7 million from Grace in order to compensate victims of asbestos exposure, but when that money is gone the program will end. Fuchs and others say it is increasingly difficult to collect compensation.
Fuchs said that when she received her most recent benefit card from LAMP her status had been downgraded from covering supplemental benefits to just screenings. Fuchs maintains that even when she was on the plan’s supplemental benefits program she was not compensated for her inhaler costs.
Fuchs spent the Saturday afternoon after the verdict trimming plum and cherry trees around her childhood home in Libby. The house sits between vermiculite tailings piles and the Grace export plant where vermiculite was shipped across the country. Surveying the scene, Fuchs said that as a child her chances for exposure were everywhere.
“Like Dr. Whitehouse told me, I couldn’t have lived in a worse spot, I got it from all ends,” she said, referring to Alan Whitehouse, a doctor who diagnosed asbestos-related disease in many of his Libby patients. “My brother and I played in the piles of it side by side …. it was fluffy, it was soft, it felt great to jump in a pile of it. When the sun would hit it looked like gold.”
Fuchs now lives in Washington, but returns to Libby to visit family. She said she’s not afraid to visit Libby, but worries about the future for her family and the community. Regardless of any court case, she said, the people of Libby need a way to deal with their medical costs.
The concern is not hers alone. Many affected by the disease worry that the criminal trail, although not directly linked to the health care benefits they receive from the mining company, could discredit claims and make collecting compensation even harder.
The majority of the patients affected by asbestos exposure in Libby seek care and treatment from the CARD center in downtown Libby. Founded in 2003 the center is active in providing outreach, awareness and screenings to the community.
Tanis Hernandez, a social worker at CARD, said the verdict will not leave people without treatment.
“The criminal trial doesn’t mean anything to CARD,” she said. “We’ll keep providing healthcare to people suffering from asbestos related diseases.”
Hernandez said asbestos-related health problems are not a thing of the past.
“We get 15 to 20 new patients each month that we’ve never met before,” she said. “Things are still unfolding, so to speak.”
Hernandez said that the center also experiences mutations of asbestos-related diseases that they have never been seen before.
People who have long watched the course of asbestos-related disease in their loved ones have a special apprehension about the future.
Nancy Gab grew up in Libby and moved back a year ago with her husband, Tom in order to be near her mother, who suffers from asbestos-related disease.
“Mom got it from Dad. Dad worked at the mine in the late ’40s,” Gab said. Her mother doesn’t want to sue anybody, Gab said, but still needs care. “I want to get her on the medical plan, get her the meds when she needs them”
Gab fears her mother will suffer a fate similar to that of her father, who required intensive medical care before he died. “Dad died in ’84,” she said. “They had to put tubes in his lungs. He swelled up like a chipmunk.”
Tony Fantozzi, a Libby native who returned to work here as an emergency room doctor at St. John’s Lutheran Hospital, said that to people like Gab, with a wary eye on the future, the verdict seemed like an insult from the past.
“The verdict was definitely shocking, eye opening and very disappointing,” he said. “It’s kind of like a slap in the face, like an insult personally and to the rest of the community.”
There’s a lot of care involved in treating asbestos-related disease, Fantozzi said. Fifteen to 20 percent of the patients who show up at the emergency department need urgent care to help them breathe. It happens every day, Fantozzi said, even though asking for help is something not all Libby residents do easily.
“They’re loggers … blue-collar guys. They’re people that don’t call in sick. They’re people that don’t come in unless something is really wrong,” he said. “They say, ‘you know Tony, I just can’t hunt and hike like I could five years ago’… it’s a really sad picture.”
Fantozzi said that once a patient is symptomatic, the medical care they need is regular and expensive and assistance is getting harder to secure.
“They need a CT every year, a respiratory evaluation every year, somebody’s got to pay for it,” he said. “But I don’t see that happening. I don’t see their expenses getting paid.”
New patients arrive precisely because the people of Libby are self-reliant, can-do people.
Peggy Sue Dixon, a waitress at the Red Dog Saloon who raised her children in a cramped house she rented in Libby, said she has reason to believe her children, now teenagers, were exposed to asbestos in that house.
“I was a single mom. I didn’t have no choices,” she said. “I gave my kids the other rooms in the house and built one for me and the baby in the attic.”
Dixon said she laid a plank over the rafters and insulation in the attic.
“We walked over that damn stuff for more than a year,” she said. “When the light was on you could see sparkly things in the air. It was beautiful.”
Dixon lived in the attic with her infant, Jonathon. Dixon said she took Jonathan to the doctor twice for respiratory problems before he turned one year old.
“The chalked it off as asthma,” she said, and added that she never told the doctor about the asbestos-filled attic.
Jonathon, now 15, uses an inhaler. But Dixon said she doesn’t worry about him because he’s athletic and plays football and baseball.
“I know I need to get him in,” she said. “But it’s hard, you know.”
Back with her plum trees, Sally Fuchs mulls the meaning of justice for Libby.
Steady, meaningful help from W.R. Grace to pay for medications and treatment would be a step toward righting a wrong, she said, not jail time for aging executives.
“The corporation needs to be punished, not the individuals. The men are old, putting them in jail wouldn’t change anything,” Fuchs said. “If they knew they were harming us, they have to live with that, that’s between them and God.”
– Kyle Lehman and Will Grant
(Written May 13, 2009.)