The name Libby doesn’t conjure the same images of corporate and environmental malfeasance as Love Canal or Three Mile Island. But it should. This 2,600-person town in Montana was recently the focus of what a former prosecutor for the Justice Department called “the most significant environmental criminal prosecution that’s ever been brought.”
The basics are terrifying. From 1963 until 1990, the W.R. Grace Company owned and operated a vermiculite mine near Libby that was contaminated with asbestos. The deadly dust released in the mining process killed two hundred people and caused over a thousand cases of cancer and asbestos-related lung diseases. That much was settled through a series of civil lawsuits during the latter half of the twentieth century. The criminal trial this spring, on the other hand, charged W.R. Grace Company officials with knowingly allowing the toxic contamination.
That national news media provided decent, but by no means complete, coverage. CNN published a piece in March, headlined: “Decades later, asbestos-ravaged town has its day in court.” Two months later, when the government’s case against W.R. Grace & Company ended in an acquittal, the network followed up. And just last month, when the Obama administration provided $130 million in cleanup assistance to Libby, CNN ran yet another story. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications also carried articles about the trial.
Sure, more could have been written in the national press, but what the Libby asbestos tragedy highlights is the importance of a robust, regional news media—and what happens when the lights go out at some of these publications.
Some of the best coverage came from former Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrew Schneider. Schneider played an integral role in the decades-long saga in 1999, when the P-I published a series of his reports, which first brought national attention to the widespread public health threat coming out of the vermiculite mine. Schneider attempted to document that Grace was not only aware of the contamination at the time it was operating, but did nothing to address the dangers. The reports were bolstered by Grace’s internal documents and memos, official government records, and dogged local reporting—the ingredients of great investigative reporting. As a result of Schneider’s work, the Environmental Protection Agency sent a response team to the area and three years later, in 2002, declared Libby a Superfund site.
This winter, as W.R. Grace Company executives faced criminal charges, Schneider covered the town, its residents, and the legal proceedings with sometimes daily posts to his P-I blog, Secret Ingredients. But when the P-I stopped printing the paper and laid off most of its employees in March, the country lost one of its best sources of information about the Libby trial. In his last post on the subject for the P-I Web site (cross-posted to his personal blog), Schneider wrote:
As a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I broke the story of the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Mont., 10 years ago. Tonight, the paper prints its final edition, which means I won’t be able to write about the outcome of the W.R. Grace criminal trial for the newspaper that first revealed what happened to Libby and its people.
Schneider continued to cover the trial on his blog, paid for in part by donations from a few public health groups, which was eventually renamed and moved to Coldtruth.com. Without a readership base like the P-I provided, however, Schneider’s lone-wolf reporting no doubt reaches a far smaller audience. And when the P-I went down, the national press—which had primarily done one-off pieces on Libby, rather than continual coverage like Schneider—didn’t pick up the slack.
On the other hand, the Missoulian, the local paper in Missoula, Montana, not only provided up-to-date coverage for the duration of the trial, it also created an excellent Web site which aggregated background information, prior coverage, health explanations, and everything one could possible want to know about Libby’s asbestos woes. In addition, journalism and law students at the University of Montana, under the guidance of assistant journalism professor Nadia White, ran their own live coverage of the trial via Twitter and blog posts on its own “Grace Case” Web site.
“Every day the court was open, we covered it with Twitter from the courtroom, from gavel to gavel,” White explained in a recent interview. “Every two hours, the reporters rotated, and the reporter who was just leaving the Twitter job wrote a summary post. We had two reporters doing that in two-hour blocks, one journalism student and one law student. So every two hours our blog would update with a legal analysis piece, and a journalistic presentation of the same period of the trial.”