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Asbestos town dying as lawmakers dicker

Asbestos poisoning victim Les Skramstad and his wife, Norita, have spent years crusading for financial and medical compensation -- not just for him but for others in Libby, Mont., the site of a now-closed W.R. Grace vermiculite mine.Loren Callahan / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

In one sense, Les Skramstad is almost jealous of his late neighbor in Libby, Mont. At least that man’s death from cancerous mesothelioma came quickly, he said.

Skramstad is dying of asbestosis, which feels like slow, constant suffocation.

“It’s pretty doggone painful,” he said.

Also challenging, Skramstad said, is watching Congress struggle with legislation that could provide some compensation for all of those sickened by asbestos poisoning in the town of about 2,500 people.

Asbestos released into the air from the now-closed W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine just down the road is blamed by some health authorities for killing about 200 people and sickening one of every eight residents. Skramstad worked at the mine in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Last year, a federal grand jury indicted Grace and some of its executives, saying the company knew it was poisoning people. Grace denies criminal wrongdoing.

Bill stalls, workers die
On Feb. 14, the bill creating a $140 billion trust fund for asbestos victims — with the money supplied largely by defendant companies and their insurers — stalled in Congress after some conservative senators feared the cost would eventually be passed on to taxpayers.

The legislation included a provision specifically for Libby residents that would pay those who can prove they have asbestos-related diseases up to $1.1 million each.

As Congress has stopped and started on the bill several times, Skramstad and others who are dying of asbestos poisoning say many in Washington don’t understand Libby’s plight.

Of the 150 people he worked with four decades ago, only five are alive, Skramstad said.

“It’s going to kill us, every one of us,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time. ... This is a lot more serious than a lot of people realize.”

The vermiculite mine provided material for various household products, fireproofing and insulation. It was the best job in town, keeping Libby residents employed for decades. But it also blew tremolite asbestos — a particularly hazardous form of the mineral — all over town.

The long, needlelike asbestos tremolite fibers can easily become embedded in human lungs and cause asbestosis, often fatal, or mesothelioma, a rare, fast-moving cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs.

Visibility problem
Montana’s two senators, Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Conrad Burns, have worked to convince the Senate about Libby’s dire situation. But Baucus, who wrote the legislation, said some lawmakers can’t visualize the problem — unlike more publicized tragedies like Hurricane Katrina that play out for television.

“Libby is off the beaten track and it’s not as visible to the cameras, but the tragedy is just as bad if not worse because it lingers on for so long,” Baucus said.

Some senators, including John Cornyn, R-Texas, object to the benefit because they believe it would be unfair to people elsewhere who may have been exposed to asbestos. That dissent threatens to kill the bill.

Most Libby residents publicly support the legislation but worry about what will happen if the provision is watered down to the point that it seriously diminishes help for those who are sick.

For example, Baucus and Burns have so far been unable to add medical criteria called the “diffusion capacity test,” which measures the lungs’ efficiency to pass oxygen into the bloodstream and helps diagnose victims of tremolite asbestos disease commonly found in Libby. Doctors there say 40 percent of those who are sick may not be found eligible without the test.

Burns said they have to work with other members to get the best legislation possible.

“I have people in Libby who are going to die before their case even gets to court,” he said, adding that any court settlements probably wouldn’t be enough.

Losing their health, and jobs
For now, many residents are struggling with medical bills. Some have filed for bankruptcy because of the financial strain. In September, a health administrator for Grace, which operates under bankruptcy protection, wrote hundreds of Libby residents that they no longer have asbestos-related disease or may not be as sick as they thought.

Tanis Hernandez, outreach coordinator for Libby’s Center for Asbestos Related Disease, said many of those who are sick can no longer work, further threatening their finances.

Hernandez, whose job includes helping sickened residents deal with legal problems and counseling dying patients, said the town has lost its innocence. Because Grace was the best employer in town, many people put their faith in the company to take care of them.

“Our trust has been damaged,” she said.

What many people don’t realize, she added, is that Libby’s particular disease is different and requires a different solution.

“It’s kind of an invisible disease,” she said. “Unless you know someone really well, you might not know how sick they are.”

Concerns about children
As for Skramstad, his wife and two of his grown children have also been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases, likely a result of the dust he brought home on his clothes and shoes every night. Because the diseases can take years to develop, he fears his other children will be next.

“I am in terror of it every day,” he said. “It’s a hard cross for me to carry around. I went to work there and I carried that stuff back to my wife and kids.”

Skramstad’s wife, Norita, said so many people are dying that some town residents are thinking of replacing a growing collection of makeshift crosses with a more permanent memorial.