Volume 13, Issue 6 ~ February 10 - February 16, 2005
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Fall From Grace

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.

Those words were written more than five years ago in a newspaper story about a small town in Montana. They came home to roost in Maryland this week with the indictment of the once-mighty W.R. Grace & Co., of Columbia, and seven current or former executives, on charges that they knowingly put workers and the public at risk.

We at Bay Weekly write a fair amount about the Chesapeake Bay and environmental matters, so we thought it worthwhile to point out when a company in our backyard is singled out for what was called "one of the most significant criminal indictments for environmental crime in our history."

By way of disclosure, the stories that led to the Grace indictments were written by a Bay Weekly friend, journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Andy Schneider, who turned his stories into a fine book, An Air That Kills, chronicling the suffering and betrayal of the people of Libby.

The stories dealt with a Grace-owned operation that mined vermiculite ore contaminated with asbestos. Hundreds of miners, family members and locals in Montana have died and many more have been sickened from exposure to the ore.

Montana U.S. Attorney William Mercer this week called what happened "a human and environmental tragedy." Grace denies criminal wrongdoing.

Sometimes it is possible to learn from tragedy.

We are reminded to be alert to possible dangers, both in manufacture and use, of products we take for granted. Vermiculite has been used commercially for decades in attic and wall insulation, construction materials, fire-proofing and plant nursery products.

It's good to be reminded, too, that newspapers and investigative reporters make it their job to shine the light on abuses in society. We hope you'll remember the next time you're tempted to blame the messenger for society's ills.

The indictments should remind us to keep a wary eye on huge corporations like Grace, especially in light of the Bush administration's cuts this week in the EPA budget.

Finally, we should remember the human costs of exploitation, told vividly in Schneider 's first story five years ago by people he interviewed in Libby, among them this woman:

"We've all had family and friends die, and we watched and held them," Gayla Benefield said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.