the observatory

Grace-ful Coverage

Libby asbestos trial highlights the value of robust regional reporting
July 10, 2009

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:

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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 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.”

The University of Montana project is impressive in its innovative use of emerging technologies, combined legal and journalistic perspectives on the trial, and model of live, group reporting followed by analysis. But one has to wonder: What will become of this valuable training? Will these students ever be paid to put those skills into practice protecting others communities from the ravages of toxic exposure?

What’s scary about this story is that the withering away of investigative, regional journalism leaves us vulnerable to similar disasters. Unchecked by watchdog reporters, large institutions are more likely to act with impunity. Unnoticed public health threats will remain unnoticed.

It’s no exaggeration to call Schneider a hero, even if the criminal case against the W.R. Grace Company and its executives ended in acquittal. Schneider, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, documented a regional story of national importance. His coverage set in motion a federal response and helped free up $130 million for cleanup and medical support, with the potential for additional funding. It is humbling to consider that one reporter could be on this story for a decade, shouting for justice when nobody seemed to care, and following up until somebody did—even as his financial backing, and his pulpit, disintegrated.

In an EPA press release in June, highlighting the emergency and the promise of more government funds, the agency’s administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, called the contamination in Libby “a tragic public health situation that has not received the recognition it deserves by the federal government for far too long.”

And yet we have to wonder whether Libby would have received any attention, let alone money and action, without Schneider and the P-I, the Missoulian, or the students at the University of Montana. It took “repeated queries” and numerous, costly lab tests paid for by the P-I before an EPA coordinator in Montana agreed that the agency itself needed to investigate Libby’s contamination. So what happens the next time there’s a similarly looming disaster?

I asked Schneider this question, and he answered from the perspective of an investigative reporter working to report and publish stories to an independent blog.

“I really lament the fact that I don’t have a paper backing me,” said Schneider, who is pursuing reports that the contaminated vermiculite sold for various uses (such as insulation in attics) by Grace may continue to pose a significant exposure hazard to consumers across the country.

“I need to chase that story,” said Schneider. “And in order for that story to have any meaning, I need to show a public health impact. And I think I can do that.”

“In the old days, I’d hop on a plane and talk to the people I’ve found who have gotten mesothelioma from exposure in attics,” he said, but who is going to pay for that today?

His question goes unanswered to the detriment of all of us.

Schneider also mentioned the cost of laboratory testing, an important part of such investigations. Before leaving the P-I, he and his editors had agreed to look into the potential public health consequences of the rapidly growing use of nano-particles in consumer products—exposure to which, fears Schneider and some scientists, may carry some of the same risks as asbestos. Such an investigation would require training for Schneider, and lab analysis of the products in question. But the P-I of old is gone (replaced by a specter of its old self as an online-only, stripped down publication), and Schneider is on his own.

“I did testing all the time,” said Schneider, talking about his years at the paper. “The P-I was gracious. We’d spend tens of thousands [of dollars] testing.”

But one man with a blog, no matter how determined, simply cannot afford to shoulder such costs on his own. When Schneider found out that certain tests he wanted to conduct on products with nano-particle coatings would cost $10,000 a pop, he was stuck. In the past, the tests would have been a matter of course. Now, they may never happen.

“For years, the mantra for many investigative reporters was: ‘So many stories, so little time,’” he said. “Now that we’re on our own it’s: ‘So many stories, so little time—and money.’”

And now that some investigative reports, like Schneider’s, are starting to appear on independent blogs without the backing and traffic of a mainstream newspaper, we may as well add: so little readership.

“It doesn’t do any good to write in a vacuum,” said Schneider, before he paused to ask a question: “Are you performing journalism if it is not being disseminated?”

Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.