Relentless Reporting, Year after Year after Year

Andrew Schneider’s first story about the trail of asbestos-related deaths and disease in Libby, Montana appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in November, 1999. The vast deposits of vermiculite mined in the small Montana town were shot through with tremolite, an invasive form of asbestos that burrows deep into the lungs when inhaled. As Schneider wrote:

First, it killed some miners. Then it killed wives and children, slipping into their homes on the dusty clothing of hard-working men. Now the mine is closed, but in Libby, the killing goes on.

The W.R. Grace Co. knew, from the time it bought the Zonolite vermiculite mine in 1963, why the people in Libby were dying.

But for the 30 years it owned the mine, the company did not stop it. Neither did the governments. Not the town of Libby, not Lincoln County. Not the state of Montana, not federal mining, health and environmental agencies, not anyone else charged with protecting the public health.

For the last five years, Schneider, now at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has pursued the asbestos story, which has taken him from Libby to the hulking ruins of the World Trade Center. (When the twin towers were constructed, vermiculite from Libby, known as Zonolite, was used as fireproofing. Many health experts and rescue personnel believe that asbestos levels at the World Trade Center site were dangerously high, despite initial assurances from the EPA that the area was safe.)

Yesterday, Schneider got to write the story every reporter hopes to write, the one of official action at long last being taken in response to his original work:

W.R. Grace & Co. and seven of its current or former executives have been indicted on federal charges that they knowingly put their workers and the public in danger through exposure to vermiculite ore contaminated with asbestos from the company’s mine in Libby, Mont.

Schneider quoted the U.S. Attorney for Montana, Bill Mercer, proclaiming: “A human and environmental tragedy has occurred. This prosecution seeks to hold Grace and its executives responsible.” And Lori Hanson, special agent in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental crime section in Denver, told him that, “This is one of the most significant criminal indictments for environmental crime in our history.”

W.R. Grace officials have denied any wrongdoing.

Every reporter knows there is a long and not always certain road between the high-profile announcement of an indictment and an eventual conviction. But this is a story that assuredly would never have moved forward without years of dogged, shoe-leather reporting by Schneider, who previously has been awarded two Pulitzers. It’s worth reading through the Post-Intelligencer’s excellent original series on Libby — if only to be reminded why lots of us got into this line of work in the first place.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.