"I worked in the Libby mine and tunnels, where all you could see were lights because the air was so thick," says Mike. "The only safety gear we got from Grace was paper masks, although one time we were given masks that had side filters but they lasted about five minutes—they were useless. The filters would clog up with asbestos fibers that turned into a clay-type substance. Unless you changed the mask every few minutes you couldn't breathe. And you were never penalized for not wearing them."
Mike lived in Libby for 40 years and worked at the W.R. Grace mine in the 1970s. Even though he was diagnosed with asbestosis in 2000, when "a government agency came to Libby and screened all of us," and even though he joined a class-action lawsuit against Libby that settled, Mike says his claim, along with many others, was thrown out of court because he doesn't have mesothelioma.
"Many of us miners received a letter stating that the screening test had found an 'abnormality' and we had to see Dr. Whitehouse, a W.R. Grace doctor," says Mike. "We knew that this doctor had diagnosed miners in the past by getting them to fill out a questionnaire. Depending on how you answered the question: 'Do you smoke?' you either had asbestosis or not. If the answer was 'Yes,' you didn't have asbestosis! So Dr. Whitehouse diagnosed me with asbestosis.
"A lot of people who had mesothelioma settled their lawsuits in 1992 and to my knowledge they all said that they didn't smoke, even though I personally knew that some of them did. I quit smoking 29 years ago.
"W.R. Grace was fully aware that the asbestos they were mining caused mesothelioma: In the late 1960s Grace tested the tremolite asbestos fibers on rats and they died from mesothelioma. It wasn't until many years later that the people of Libby became aware of the rat tests; had W.R. Grace done something back then when those rats died, we would have left Libby or never even moved there in the first place. And when those rats died, Grace knew about the latency period—up to 40 years. Lawsuits were going to be expensive.
"Here's the kicker: Instead of doing anything about asbestos exposure, Grace began to sell cigarettes at the mine; they were cheap because there wasn't any sales tax so all the miners were smoking them. I believe that Grace figured lung cancer would be associated with cigarettes and not associate it with the real cause—the tremolite we were exposed to day in and day out.
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Besides wanting justice for himself, his friends and family, Mike wants to get the word out to anyone who considers moving to Libby—don't go. According to Mike, local government agencies are not telling people to stay away and are downplaying the asbestos issue. But the recent discovery of contaminated wood chips is enough to keep anyone away. According to the Associated Press, the EPA knew about the asbestos-contaminated wood for the past three years.
"Nothing has changed," says Mike. "All they had to do was tell the truth…"