Produced and Directed by Drury Gunn Carr and Doug Hawes-Davis
Distributed by High Plains Films
Libby, Montana, a documentary aired on PBS as part of its POV series, examines the fortunes and misfortunes of a small town in the northern Rockies that resulted from mining operations that began in 1919 by a local engineer. When the industrial titan, H.L. Grace, took over operations from 1963-1990, the town's inhabitants received steady employment and respectable wages, as Libby turned out eighty percent of the worldwide production of vermiculite, a mineral used for insulation and other manufactured products. Vermiculite mining, however, also exposed the town to tremolite, a type of asbestos found in the vermiculite ore. As early as 1956, the Montana State Board of Health realized the health risks associated with tremolite. By 1965, company records indicate that officials at H.L. Grace were also aware of the toxicity of the "nuisance dust" that resulted from vermiculite mining. Despite this awareness, and despite company medical records that documented employee lung abnormalities, Grace continued operations without informing workers of their deteriorating health and of workplace health hazards. Eventually, Grace's negligence resulted in numerous lawsuits. Libby, Montana chronicles the efforts made to bring justice to this small community.
The documentary weaves together interviews with victims along with news reports and footage of mining operations. Much of Grace's complicity is revealed through the trial testimony of Earl Lovick, the company's mine manager who was also diagnosed with asbestosis. The film focuses on the citizens who became activists and on the efforts of EPA site manager Paul Peronard. With his passionate response to the plight of the afflicted, Peronard belies the stereotypical image of an indifferent government bureaucrat. At several points during his investigations, the suffering of Libby's residents took an emotional toll on Peronard.
Like Peronard, the filmmakers found it difficult to not have an emotional reaction. In a released statement, they remarked: "If we had any intention of keeping an emotional arm's length from the subject, that idea was shattered in that first afternoon with Les" Skramstad, a Libby resident who eventually died of a cancer induced by asbestos exposure. They also note that "we attempted to tell as honest a story as we knew how, and to always keep in mind that what Les wanted was simply some justice."
Although the focus of Libby, Montana is on the tragedy inflicted on the town and its struggle for justice, the documentary also highlights many ironies. A region revered for its breathtaking physical beauty became, according to the EPA, the nation's worst example of environmental pollution. Libby's physical isolation fostered an ethos of self-reliant, independent living, yet that same isolation ensured that the town's tribulation received little attention; years of environmental havoc went unnoticed until 1999, when journalist Andrew Schneider uncovered the story for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (discussed in detail in his 2004 publication, An Air that Kills).
Schneider's expose captured the attention of the EPA, although the agency initially believed the story was exaggerated. The EPA's subsequent involvement in Libby divided the town politically. The town's normally conservative politics opposed federal authority, especially environmental regulation, often viewed as a threat to good paying jobs. Many opposed the government's labeling of Libby as a Superfund site, a designation that expedited funds for environmental cleanup. The controversy often pitted neighbor against neighbor, as advocates for environmental protection such as Les Skramstad and Gayla Benefield were called radicals. On the other hand, the EPA's Paul Peronard, through his indefatigable efforts, won the support of many of the community's inhabitants. When he died in 2007, the "radical" Les Skramstad was praised as a champion of justice and eulogized by Montana Senator Max Baucus before the Senate.
Despite the recognition of Les Skramstad's efforts, his desire for justice has produced mixed results. In March, 2008, Grace was ordered to pay the federal government $250 million for Libby's cleanup costs. On the other hand, in May, 2009, several of Grace's former executives were acquitted of criminal charges that they knowingly endangered workers and town residents. The trial was controversial--Judge Donald Molloy disallowed much of the prosecution's evidence--and left many townspeople embittered. The town also received more unsettling news in June, 2009, when the EPA determined that the Libby mining site was in a state of a public health emergency.
The public health issues, environmental damage, and wrangling over legal culpability that affected Libby have been repeated elsewhere. It would have been more informative if Libby, Montana provided more historical context to illustrate an important characteristic of the American West: a region venerated for its natural beauty and national parks, the West has also been blessed with rich mineral resources that have made it the object of environmentally destructive mining. The coveted material might vary by region-copper in Butte, Montana or zinc and lead in Picher, Oklahoma--but the dangers to public health, as illustrated in Libby, Montana are a disquieting legacy of resource extraction in the West.
University of Oklahoma