Editor’s note: Throughout the week, the Missoulian will update readers on the people, places and events that made news in 2009.
LIBBY – Ida Templin lives in a very small house, and when she sits down at the desk to adjust her earrings, her feet are pressed tight up to the bed.
The desk she got from the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine. The bed is hospital-style, with cranks and side rails.
It’s where her husband rested when his lungs struggled to take in air, and she’s adjusting her earrings because she’s going to his viewing, over at the funeral home.
“He went to a town meeting about the asbestos on Dec. 1,” she said, “and he died on Dec. 5.”
Jack Templin, like many in Libby, didn’t work at the mine that contaminated his town. He just lived here. And like so many others, he was diagnosed, back in 2001, with asbestos-related disease.
He had his first heart attack – from lack of oxygen – on Sept. 11, 2001, as airliners slammed into skyscrapers. Since then, Ida Templin has buried her mother, two brothers, a brother-in-law, a nephew and now Jack. Lung cancer, lung cancer, mesothelioma.
Her son is diagnosed, and her daughters, too. Her niece, and three more nephews.
And, of course, Ida Templin herself.
When she was 12, the mine bosses came to her school, told the kids how lucky they were to have the largest vermiculite mine in the world. Also when she was 12, Rose McQueen – a childhood friend – was losing her father to a strange illness everyone just called “the dust.”
A generation later, when Ida’s oldest daughter was not quite 12, the mine bosses came back to school, took the kids up for a field trip, and fed them cookies with vermiculite filler.
“Now, her body’s just shredded inside.”
Ida Templin couldn’t bear to watch when the government put W.R. Grace & Co. on trial last spring.
“We were all too disgusted to watch that trial very closely,” she said. “The company was coating it, making it look like no one knew anything. You bet they knew. And everyone in this town knows they knew.”
The trial began on Monday, Feb. 23, 2009, and lasted months. Much evidence was tossed out, because today’s environmental laws didn’t exist when Ida was 12.
The company spent nearly $140 million on a roomful of lawyers. The government’s legal team carpooled with seats to spare.
And on Friday, May 8, jurors acquitted the company and its executives on all counts.
“Of course we were disappointed,” Templin said. “But we weren’t surprised.”
Templin, though, is nothing if not patient.
“They’re going to get their comeuppance,” she predicted, “when they die of it themselves.”
George Bauer clips hair at the local barber shop, and takes his medications for asbestos-related disease. He calls the W.R. Grace trial “a total disaster.”
“This town needed some closure, some vindication and some good news,” he said. “A guilty verdict really would have helped the attitude, because it would have meant justice.”
Justice is a word that came up lots in Libby during 2009. Many families have filed civil suits seeking justice for themselves, if not for the broader community.
It didn’t help, Bauer said, that news came on the heels of the verdict that a bankruptcy court had ruled Libby residents would get in line with the rest of the country for payments from Grace.
“If Libby could have been considered separately,” he said, “then we could’ve paid for some health care. Now, who knows?”
Health care payments were, for many residents, one of the brighter spots in Libby during the last year. On June 17, the federal government declared a public health emergency in the town, the first – and last – such declaration made in this country.
It assures residents that cleanup funds will be available (more than
$200 million already has been spent) and it guarantees money for medical screening and treatment.
“Health care should have been the focal point from the very beginning,” Bauer said, “but I guess it’s better late than never.”
People were worried what might happen to a company-sponsored health care plan after Grace emerges from bankruptcy, “but now it looks like we’ll have some money to care for people,” Bauer said.
“We have an opportunity to move forward with this designation,” said Gayla Benefield, who like Templin has buried too many. “Between the EPA and the health care, Libby actually has some jobs. Libby’s on the map, and things are happening.”
Both the local asbestos health clinic and the hospital are looking to expand in 2010, and the first $6 million has arrived for patient screening and care. Another $2 million is in the pipeline from the state, for health care and home care assistance.
But every bit of news, whether good or bad, is painful.
“It causes us to rehash everything,” said Cam Foote, a local pastor who was diagnosed several years ago. “It brings up a lot of old feelings. You think you’re past it, but then there’s a trial, or a declaration, or some headline and you have to go through it all over again.”
He wasn’t thinking of it a few months ago, but then he had to go in for his annual checkup. He wasn’t thinking of it on a gray December day, but then Ida Templin called and asked him to bury her husband.
“No matter how many steps forward you take, you are always reminded to look back,” Foote said. “And so you have to deal with it, because it is what it is. But you can’t deal with it, because there’s no cure, no answer.”
Foote, fortunately, is in the business of hope.
“Even those without faith need hope,” he said.
He testified at the trial – calls the verdict “a kidney punch, one more nail in the lid” – and understands what’s at stake as well as any. He wonders daily if his town will ever get beyond W.R. Grace.
“When you’ve been violated,” he said, “it’s natural to want justice before you can move forward. Now, we have an open wound, a sense of betrayal that hasn’t been able to heal.”
“But ultimately,” he concludes, “we have to accept the reality that justice isn’t always served. It’s hard to forgive someone who won’t admit they did wrong, but you can’t run from it.”
Next year, he said, he’ll offer online theology courses at his church, “because people need something they can reach for, if they’re going to keep their dignity.”
Foote’s looking ahead, he said, “because if your eyes are focused out front, you can’t be looking in the rearview mirror.”
Out front of Libby is the hope of an answer. How clean is clean? How safe is safe? How are children affected? How fast does the disease take hold? With a 40-year latency, when will it end? And why do so many here seem to suffer from auto-immune problems?
Studies are under way that could make the town a scientific hub, a repository of the best data available about asbestos-related disease and contamination cleanup.
Doctors from Mount Sinai School of Medicine are cooperating with the local clinic, as are university colleagues from Montana, Idaho and Ohio.
They’re combing old records, looking for markers in the blood, studying kids and people who used to be kids.
“The science is huge,” said Jim Sullivan, who worked many years here as a pharmacist. “The cleanup and the science are going to provide jobs, and answer a lot of important questions. That’s the future. We’re already very well-equipped to be a medical research center.”
The future, for Ida Templin, is all too clear. She’s seen it already, lying there on the hospital bed next to the hulking company desk.
“I just realized last night, I’m a widow,” she said, still surprised by the notion. Her daughter’s a widow, too.
“I suppose I’ll visit friends,” she said. “I’ll help out at the church rummage sale. I’ll keep going until it gets me.”
But what really gets her, right here and right now, is the fact that her kids and grandkids watched Jack die, “and so they know what’s coming. That pisses me off; there’s no nice way to say that. No one should have to know what’s coming.”
The trial came and went, the funding comes and goes, the meetings never cease and the church goes online. The hospital expands – is that good news or bad? – and business sags as headlines reinforce the stigma. And Cam Foote is reminded, yet again, by another funeral at his church.
“This doesn’t end,” Templin said. “This is just who we are now, and so we do the best we can.
“Everybody has troubles and struggles. This one is ours.”
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.