Dec. 12, 2003
A University of Montana class came away from a field trip to Libby with more than they bargained.
Instructor Nicky Phear and 25 students from the Wilderness and Civilization Program met in Libby last Friday with local representatives involved with the W.R. Grace cleanup and the associated health problems.
“We go on weekly field trips, trying to understand how the ecology, politics, history and culture of a place interact,” Phear said.
In a classroom at the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College, Phear and the UM students listened to Gayla Benefield and Les Skramsted, local asbestos victim’s advocates, Gordon Sullivan, Technical Assistance Grant director, and Pat Cohan of the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.
The vermiculite mine near Libby operated for nearly 60 years, with the final 30 under the management of Grace. More than 2,000 local residents have been diagnosed in recent years with asbestos-related disease from the mining and milling operations. The vermiculite was contaminated with tremolite asbestos, a rare and dangerous form of asbestos. Two hundred
deaths have been associated with the mining operation due to asbestos-related disease.
Phear said students came away with a more personal look at how a mining project can go wrong for people in a community. For some it provided insight into a problem that was only vaguely familiar to them.
“I had passed through Libby many times, traveled there to play soccer and run track, and it was not until I listened to these testimonies that I wanted to help,” said Mark Ruby of Kalispell. “It put a face to the issue.”
For student Melisa Beveridge, she was both moved by the comments and inspired by the strength of the community.
“The sadness and tragedy is overwhelming in Libby, but the strength of the community has been a huge help in overcoming their anger,” she said. “I started crying when Les said that he only had two years left to live, and his wife was behind him holding his shoulders, recognizing the implications of that reality more and more every day. It’s a very personal issue when you are face to face with the people who are sick, such as the woman who will lose her husband too soon in life.” One student, Anna Bengston, sees the Libby story as a call to all citizens to be more actively involved and not complacent, especially on issues of health versus money.
“What happened in Libby can happen anywhere in the world, and not only with the mining industry,” Bengston said. “As individuals and citizens of the U.S. we need to be more critical and questioning of our government and big business rather than putting unassuming blind faith
and trust in them to look out for our well-being.
Bengston said Libby was a good example of where when it comes down to a choice between making money and protecting workers, greed can easily impair the judgment of people.
“My hope is that something good will come from what has happened in Libby, and I believe this is already beginning to take place through education and awareness” she said “Hopefully this will lead to protection or prevention from something like this happening in another area.”
And another student, Adam Lieberg, said nothing short of complete cleanup in the Libby community should be acceptable.
“After listening to everything the people of this town have been through, it is unimaginable that anything other than a complete clean up would be acceptable,” he said “The fact that this has not been the case is both frustrating and devastating. To witness these people, like Les Skramstad and Gayla Benefield, invest so much energy in fighting for their town — who do not all support them — and all the while doing this knowing they are dying is inspirational.”
Many students found the Libby tragedy inspirational in how truth found it’s way to daylight and corrective action is taking place though the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency. Others were concerned that corporate greed and government malaise were allowed to endanger the health of an entire community.
And others were simply moved.
“My experience in Libby was very powerful and dramatic,” said Andrew Henry. “I walked away with knowledge of the community and an understanding of poor mining practices. I pray for the community of Libby to have a strong future, a remarkable recovery, and happiness. The
experience in Libby gave me inspiration and an incentive to use my knowledge and play an active role to prevent any other catastrophic calamities from happening again.”
The Wilderness and Civilization program is a yearlong program that integrates classroom learning and field study to educate students about land use and community conservation across western Montana. The program is a part of the College of Forestry and Conservation. Students,
however, take coursework from across the campus in ecology, policy, law, Native American perspectives, literature, and economics. Students are also required to do an internship and a service project.
“After Libby we went to the Yaak Valley and met with folks up there to try to better understand forest management, the culture of the region, and the ecology of that unique forest,” Phear said “Our field trips always introduce us to a range of land managers and community leaders —
foresters, ecologists, tribal members, conservation activists, land managers, and others.”
The class has taken field trips to the Rocky Mountain Front, where they met with ranchers, people from the Nature Conservancy, and from the Blackfeet Reservation. They went on a forestry field trip to visit the Stimson Mill in Bonner, where they met with local loggers, and participated in a mock timber harvest.
“We’ve also explored the Missoula Valley quite a bit-learning about the infestation of weeds, urban sprawl into important agriculture lands, local food systems, and open space planning,” Phear said.