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At High Country News, Ray Ring writes about the W.R. Grace decision, and takes environmental groups to task for "mostly continu[ing] to ignore this environmental crime because the victims are people, instead of ecosystems."

Who Failed Libby?

In an earlier article Ring wrote:

Environmental groups send me many press releases. And I read many news stories about environmental issues — news framed by the groups.

The influential groups are busy designating more wilderness, and filing lawsuits to protect wolves, and pushing Congress to reform mining law, battling coal, battling oil and gas, battling off-road drivers etc. etc.

But I hear very little from the groups about the biggest environmental disaster directly affecting people. I’m talking about the poisoning of hundreds of working-class people in Libby, Montana, by asbestos fibers. Mining from 1924 to 1990 spread the deadly fibers throughout the small town. Hundreds of locals have died from terrible lung disease and more suffer every day.

It’s a fair complaint, on its face. I get plenty of those press releases from environmental groups and read those same news stories, and the only consistent reporting I’ve seen about Libby over the last few years has been from this site, New West. But the question is whether that’s because the media or activists or environmental groups care less about people than, say, polar bears, or wolves, or reforming an archaic mining law that stacks the deck in favor of the W.R. Grace’s of the world to exploit communities along with the natural resources they’re after.

I think there are a number of factors at play here to account for the relative quiet about Libby, and few of them have to do with a lack of horror at what has happened to the people of Libby. And probably none of them made that jury in Missoula acquit Grace and the former executives of the company.

The tunnel vision of interest groups is legendary. No matter the issue area, these groups find a niche, and stick in it, often working at odds with other groups working for the very same goal. They end up competing for media notice, for members, but mostly for dollars and they tend to stay in their lane. They work on the single issue that brings them these things–attention, people, funding. Is it a fair excuse for Ring’s concerns? Probably not, but it’s the nature of the beast, and Ring might as well criticize social justice organizations–the ones who do focus on people–for not making Libby their primary cause.

Another factor is outrage fatigue and plain old fatigue fatigue. The past eight years have been a long fight for activists on so many fronts, from the war in Iraq to the economic meltdown. Policies that made the rich richer and the rest of us less secure were the order of the Bush administration and played out in every issue from the economy to the war to regular assaults on the environment. The tunnel-vision effect of interest groups was intensified because the battle was intensified. Do you fight against the war that more rural and poor kids are fighting and dying in, or against the oil company that wants to drill in your backyard? The previous administration was adept at a divide and conquer strategy, lighting fire after fire after fire to scatter the opposition in response. It worked, and activist groups and individuals are beleaguered, broke, and exhausted, with little energy to spare for a fight they think someone else must be working on.

Environmental groups have been geared toward thinking about undoing or preventing the damage done by humans on the defenseless. Polar bears can’t fight human activity, they can’t hire lawyers or stage protests or get television news cameras in front of them, nor can wolves nor can entire ecosystems. It is short-sighted of the organizations focusing on the mountain west environment not to consider the human costs of the issues they’re involved in, not to think of the human victims in environmental disasters, but when it comes down to it, people can take care of themselves. People can organize on their own behalf. People can hire lawyers. The people of Libby did all these things. That’s not to argue that they didn’t need more help, didn’t deserve more attention and more general outrage, but that doesn’t mean they should have become the poster child victims of a concerted PR campaign.

Who knows whether it’s possible that a media blitz and massive campaign on the part of environmental groups would have resulted in a judge and jury finding W.R. Grace guilty. But it’s awfully hard to imagine that when the jury heard the facts, 2,000 cases of illness and about 225 deaths in and around the community, they wouldn’t be predisposed toward the victims.

It comes down to federal prosecutors who seem to have been in way over their heads, utterly incapable of making the case they were attempting to lay before the judge and jury. Prosecutorial ineptitude and politicization seems to have been the norm for the Bush Justice Department, and it seems that they didn’t send the A team to prosecute this one.

Justice hasn’t been done for the people of Libby, though there’s a bit of hope that it will be in the pending civil trial. That’s not the fault of the groups that didn’t make Libby their rallying cry.

About Joan McCarter

Joan McCarter is a contributing editor at Daily Kos, writing as "mcjoan." She has focused on Iraq, the traditional media, and electoral politics at the blog. During the 2006 election, McCarter focused her writing on Democratic prospects in the west. She traveled throughout the Rocky Mountain states through the last weeks of the campaign, researching and writing about Democratic candidates and campaign strategies. She is currently researching a book on western politics scheduled to be published in spring, 2008. McCarter worked on Capitol Hill for then Congressman and now Senator Ron Wyden. She has broad campaign experience and has been deeply involved in Democratic politics since childhood. She has a master's degree in international studies from the University of Washington and worked as a writer, editor, and instructional designer at the UW from 1995-2006. She is currently a fellow at Daily Kos.

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  1. Robert Hoskins


    I had not seen Ray’s article, but after reading it, and then your response here, I think you’ve hit the mark far more accurately than Ray did. I’ve long since given up on High Country News; the Marstons with their pollyanna, let’s break bread together approach to Western environmental problems did quite a bit of damage to

  2. Robert Hoskins

    (sorry, hit the wrong button)


    I had not seen Ray’s article, but after reading it, and then your response here, I think you’ve hit the mark far more accurately than Ray did. I’ve long since given up on High Country News; the Marstons, with their pollyanna, let’s break bread together approach to solving Western environmental problems did quite a bit of damage to conservation by diverting us from hard-ball strategies that work to collaborationist strategies that protect the status quo. Talk about divide and conquer. Who benefited from such a misguided strategy? It certainly hasn’t been land and wildlife.

    The problems of conservation are infinite and tough as granite to crack. As you say, we can’t take on every effort; we’re not as rich as critics like Ray Ring seem to think, and most of us are just plain broke. In my case, I’m flat broke and have so many local and regional conservation problems here in the Greater Yellowstone to address that I can’t even begin to think of what’s going on up in Libby, except as a cautionary tale. Also, as you say, there are numerous social justice groups that can take on things like the Libby disaster. Further, as you also mention, the specific problems with the now-completed trial seem to be due to prosecutorial incompetence. Enviros didn’t put these guys into the US Attorney’s Office. George Bush and Alberto Gonzales did.

    As one commenter said on Ray’s story on the HCN site, Ray likes to bash environmental groups on general purpose. Why? I think because they’re not all things to all people or worse, don’t subscribe to HCN pollyanna people-first conservation.

    As a conservationist, I know that there are plenty of people first organizations out there. With environmental issues, far too many of them still blindly subscribe to manifest destiny and multiple use. They’re part of the problem, not the solution.

    In closing, I keep getting offers from HCN begging me to renew my subscription. I throw them away. It’s a long way from Tom Bell’s time.


  3. Who failed Libby?
    America did. Almost all our institutions did.
    Scores of citizens dead and dying, and the Justice Department fails in prosecuting a repeat offender, W.R. Grace.
    Grace’s unindicted co-conspirators included state and federal environmental agencies and elected officials (including former hometown boy Marc Racicot) and the state’s congressional delegation, the Montana news media, the medical community and even religious leaders, who failed to speak up after attending too many funerals for the members of their congregations.
    The entire episode was a throwback to the 1890s when corporations held the power of life or death and no one had the courage to stop them.
    The Libby miners probably knew at least some of the risks they were taking personally. But would they have taken the job if they knew it meant a terrible death for their wives and kids?

  4. Matthew Koehler

    Ray Ring has a long history of blaming environmentalists for failing to do this or that. I guess Mr. Ring has decided by taking such an approach in his writings it gives him an angle or a leg up on the competition. Or maybe he thinks it makes him look clever.

    I’m not sure if most folks remember, but prior to Mr. Ring’s latest article blaming enviros for not doing enough to help the people of Libby (which Joan links to and offers some quotes from) Mr. Ring had a similar article in 2005 that can be found here: http://www.hcn.org/issues/292/15290.

    And last December, as the full scale of the economic crisis (caused by the same over-consumption and over-development that enviros warned about time and again) was becoming reality, Mr. Ring again took the opportunity to blame enviros. This time it was for supposedly “shunning” autoworkers at GM, Ford and Chrysler. You can read that article here: http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/enviros-shun-autoworkers.

    I will paste below the comments to Mr. Ring that I submitted to the High Country News website at the bottom of his “Enviros Shun Autoworkers” piece. I never did hear any response from Mr. Ring, but I think for the most part the comments written last December still hold true, except, very unfortunately, for the part about the people of Libby getting the justice they deserve.

    Of course, the big irony here is that ever since Mr. Ring called Judge Don Molloy “the greenest judge in the west” in his 2004 article (http://www.hcn.org/issues/268/14564), Judge Molloy has consistently ruled against environmental groups/issues in a host of cases. Hmmm…taking a page out of Mr. Ring’s book, perhaps an article titled “Mr. Ring, High Country News Fails Libby” is in order. After all, like I mention below, where were all those High Country News stories during the 80s or early 90s about the tredgedy occurring in Libby?


    Ray, It seems to me that you are often quick to blame enviros for problems that don’t seem to have anything to do with enviros.

    For example, didn’t a few years ago you basically blame enviros for not doing anything about the death and destruction caused up in Libby, MT at the hands of corporate-bad-guy WR Grace? This, despite the fact that MEIC and other enviros devoted significant time, energy and effort to help the folks up in Libby and generate interest from politicians and the media.

    Isn’t an enviro largely credited with alerting reporters at the Seattle PI about the tragedy happening to the people of Libby? And didn’t the MEIC try to alert others for years?

    Is it the enviros fault when politicians and the media ignore us? Where was High Country News’ stories during the 80s or early 90s about the tragedy occurring in Libby? Should HCN share some blame? Where was Libby’s native son Marc Racicot when he was Governor of Montana from 1993 until 2001?

    So now you take on the environmental movement for failing to stand with the Big Three auto companies and their workers as they asked for $20 billion or so to basically just get them a few months further down the road…before they end up declaring bankruptcy anyway.

    Ok, but I’m curious as to what, in your view, the Sierra Club or the environmental movement should have specifically done in this case? Seems like nobody wanted a bailout that included any talk of the Big Three doing things different to help put America on a clean, green and sustainable future. In fact, for a while when it seemed like Congress would pass the bailout for the Big 3, the loan money was going to come out of the funds set aside for more green cars, just further adding salt to the wound.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have serious concerns about the environmental movement and especially the way the Big Green Groups operate. However, it seems to me that you blaming enviros for Libby and now the situation facing the Big Three (which are getting their bailout anyway) is off the mark.

    P.S. Ironically, the recent film by High Plains Films (which was a spin-off from enviro group The Ecology Center) titled “Libby, Montana” has done as much as anything to ensure that the people of Libby get justice and that the tragedy done to them at the hands of WR Grace is not repeated anywhere else.

  5. Um, Joan,
    Kris MacLean pretty much predates Bush. He’s been DOJ’s environmental crimes attorney for a long time, since at least Shirley Matteuchi’s day. This is not the first time he’s overreached in his lust to smite eco-evildoers, which seems to cloud his judgment rather often.
    Never mind in Libby, the economy has suffered a lot not just from good old WR Grace, but from enviro activism. Greens are not exactly welcomed with open arms.
    People in Lincoln County are in a hard place. Many of them worked for Grace with pride for a job well done, and while betrayed by the company, they are still proud of being miners. The loggers are in the same boat, abandoned by J Neils’ successors, they are still proud of what they used to do and who they used to be. The enviros don’t offer an alternative at all. And hate what these people are and what they take pride in.

  6. Mr. Koehler’s response to Ray Ring seems a little overly sensitive to me. Ring is not blaming the environmental movement for Libby, he’s merely questioning their priorities. My opinion is that the environmental movement started out with the dominant concerns being about public health (air and water quality, toxic pollution, etc.) but lately, it seems to have been captured by what I feel are somewhat more esoteric issues like wolves and wilderness and global warming, and all too frequently a sort of anti-human, anti-capitalist, neo-pagan religious fervor. Call me too antropocentric, and I see the shortcomings of our existing culture, but it has brought about the highest standard of living for the most people in history, and not all dissatisfaction in the world can be traced back merely to our spiritual failings and separation from nature. I don’t know how to say it correctly, but it’s got to be OK to care about people, too.

  7. Hey folks, I think you are attacking the messenger here.

    I have not read Ray Ring’s article, but I am very concerned about the state of our major environmental groups.

    We’re losing ground environmentally, population is soaring, public indifference is at new heights, and our major enviro groups seem less effective then ever. There must be a reason for that. Instead of bashing Ring, maybe some soul searching is in order.

    And take note- there are lots of folks who are thoroughly enjoying the environmentalists’ failures, from rageaholic proppitty rats! people to extractive industry and anti-public lands zealots.

    Just as it is kind of fun to watch the implosion of the Republican Party, laugh at the new lows of their ideas and public utterances, anti-environmental forces are enjoying each “Howl In!”
    where the preacher inspires the small choir with ever wilder rhetoric, and more and more good people take a look in the church door, shake their heads, and go home to mow the lawn.

    Who loses in both these instances? Every one of us.

  8. By Art Montana, 5/12/09

    The outcome of the Grace trial is disappointing and shocking, and I too blame the result on prosecutorial weakness, if not incompetence.

    I worked as a geologist and mining engineer for Zonolite and W. R. Grace at the Libby mine. I wrote my Masters thesis and Ph D dissertation on the geology and geochemistry of the deposits, including a study of the tremolite. I suffer from lung disease.

    I became convinced that the executives of both companies were aware of the deleterious consequences of exposure to the products mined and milled there after I was contacted by Andrew Schneider as he was preparing his book, “An Air that Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal.” The evidence that he presented is beyond dispute, a matter of record.

    I talked to the prosecutorial team by telephone on several occasions offering my expertise, but they never contacted me. No one knows more about the nature of the Libby deposits than I do, and I felt helpless in my attempts to aid those in Libby who suffer and suffered from exposure to the “asbestos.” My friend Ray Kujawa was one of those who died from such exposure.

    I am a native Montanan who has worked as a stope miner in four of Butte’s underground mines, and my father was a hard-rock miner throughout Montana. I have a BS degree in Geological Engineering (Mining Option) from the (then) Montana School of Mines, and I served as Chairman of the New Mexico Mining Commission. I logged for Weyerhaeuser in the big-tree forests of Washington the summer that Butte miners were on strike.

    I am also an environmentalist who helped clean up disasters from poorly managed mines and fought proposed mines that were inappropriately placed or inappropriately planned to avoid environmental disasters. It is unwarranted to profess that environmentalists dishonor loggers and miners. I regret that I did not do more to change the outcome of the Grace trial.

  9. Hey Hal, I’m not reading any more of your High Country News–WOTR stuff. Scratch me off the list.

  10. Robert Hoskins

    HCN and Ray Ring are not messengers. They’re playing the game. That makes them fair game.

  11. Matthew Koehler

    Dr. Tom Power, the former chair of the Economics Dept at the University of Montana and author of “Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies: The Search for a Value of Place”, had an interesting commentary on the WR Grace verdict on Montana Public Radio earlier in the week. It can be viewed in its entirety at: http://www.mtpr.net/commentaries/672.

    Below is a short snip from the piece:

    “When Judge Molloy immediately began undermining the prosecution’s case against W.R. Grace & Company, leading to a string of appeals to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which repeatedly reversed Molloy’s rulings favoring the Company, many local observers were puzzled. But that was just the beginning. Once the trial was underway the Judge became even more overtly hostile to the legal team prosecuting the W.R. Grace executives, chastising and berating the government lawyers, forcing them to reorganize their case and the order of their witnesses, blocking many witnesses from testifying at all and severely limiting what the witnesses could say. The Judge effectively adopted the position taken by W.R. Grace and Company.”

  12. Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies?
    Never mind that without mining, and seemingly every other wealth-creating activity that Power finds a reason to oppose, there probably wouldn’t be any economy at all.
    And I seem to remember reading another book from Power where he posits that a viable “new West” economy would be built upon the blown savings of immigrant entrepreneurs starting up, burning through their nut saved from elsewhere, and then leaving…providing room for another cycle of gullible amenity migrants to be scraped clean.
    All I can say is, if Judge Molloy, with his roots as a Naderite progressive tort attorney, can rule the way he did, then one thing is pathetically clear: The US attorney’s office did a shamefully poor job of prosecution — or did not take the bother to understand the laws.
    Furthermore, even if these Grace people were found criminally liable, it’s not going to give the victims their health back. The only compensation is in the civil arena, either to the victims or survivors. And I would further caution that destroying the company, giving it a death penalty, so to speak, would shift the burden to all taxpayers rather than to the real perps.
    That’s one of the most shameful things about corporate “life.” Seems to me there should be a way that Libby’s victims end up owning the company.

  13. Robert Hoskins

    Mining creates wealth? That assertion needs a big qualification. Mining only creates wealth in the short term strictly for private entities while imposing enormous costs upon the public, as is the case in Libby. In the long run, mining destroys far more wealth than it creates, so its pursuit is economically irrational. Better off not doing it at all.


  14. But Bill Croke,

    I’ll continue to read your work at the Am. Spectator. So I’ll have an idea as to what you are thinking, but my own thoughts and plans will be a mystery to you.

    To what must I credit your current state of alienation?


  15. Hal, Well, I’m flattered you’ve read my stuff. I’ve been reading you for years. Actually, most liberal writers I know (John Clayton, Bob Wire, et al) have this patronizing attitude when it comes to conservatives, as if reading their stuff is an icky experience. Meanwhile, I take as much in from both sides of the divide as I have time for. So I apologize for my little outburst. I’ll continue to look at your WOTR stuff, even though High Country News has rejected my last few WOTR submissions because for the most part they don’t really cover the West well any more, but are now some sort of newsletter dictated to by the radical green Western Left (I think this applies to New West too,but here toss in the current cultural pathologies). Ed and Betsy have failed, but I think they’re for the most part retired anyway, and the younger set at HCN is in the tank for the climate change voodoo and Lord Obama. So much for that. I think what set me off was your gratuitous conservative-GOP bashing, which I get everyday of my life either in person or online, and I frankly get tired of it. I don’t understand why the Left is so bitter. You guys have it all now. And I think the loathing of the Right has less to do with Bush-Cheney-Limbaugh hatred then it does with a feeling of insecurity that stems from the realization that it’s now yours to screwup (or screwup even more), and Obama, for instance, is screwing it up domestically and especially in the realm of foreign policy. That’s it, Hal. Cheers.

  16. Got you , Bill.

    I probably wasn’t clear enough in my post- I’m bashing Newt, Republicans, et al, for their abysmal lack of relevance and ideas. And doing so, now, especially because we need a strong, smart conservative movement in the US to help bring some balance. Right now, there’s only one game in town. and that’s never good.

  17. Robert Hoskins

    The reasons progressives find reading conservative stuff so pointless is not because of insecurity or ickiness, but because conservative stuff reflects what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland: There’s no there there.

    I realize that conservatives have an extremely inflated opinion of themselves but one would think that conservatives, after having caused so many disasters economically and militarily since the Reagan years–and I speak as a US Army officer with some experience in the Middle East and Africa–that they’d cry mea culpa. But not a chance eh? Hell, we’ve got war criminal Dick Cheney doing the press rounds claiming success in the so-called “war on terror” from torture. Well, take it from me, a SERE school graduate with a lot of knowledge of Islamic culture, all torture has accomplished is to put American servicemen and women at even greater risk and damage national security more than is was before 9-11.

    That’s the great thing about conservatives. They call it conservative thought, but there’s no thinking because they have no moral compass.


  18. Hal, It’s odd that you bring up Gingrich because he’s actually one of the few who has any good ideas. Cheers.

  19. Bob Hoskins, Thank you for your service. Otherwise, I can’t help you. It seems that service should have given you a more objective look at the foreign policy scene. Calling Cheney a war criminal is MoveOn.org stuff. Let’s see: they murder, behead us, etc., and we pour water up their noses. We respect their rights so much that we don’t even make them lie down with swine, which they fear more than anything. Back to the pages of the Casper “Star-Tribune”, Bob, where they don’t pay. Which are what your words are worth. Also, your take on High Country News up top is totally knuckleheaded.

  20. Robert Hoskins

    As baited, a perfect example of the true nature of conservative “thought” on the hook.

  21. Bob, That’s right. And I’m a keeper. Cheers.

  22. Bob, One more thing. What do you think about Obama changing his mind on releasing the photos? I’m sure you’re disappointed. After all, your “moral compass” should tell you that this could be a great way to start the Nuremberg farce targeting those war criminals Bush-Cheney that the correct moral compass Left is lusting for. I will give Obama credit for making a grownup decision, maybe the first of his 100 odd days. Wouldn’t you agree, Bob; you, who –unlike war criminals Bush-Cheney–have the interests of our troops at heart?

  23. What a filthy, despicably trashy, set of comments, Bill Croak. What does any of your low commentary here have to do with the tragic fate of the people in Libby and their inability to get anything close to a fair shake? What kind of a gloating animal are you? Are you really what “conservatism” is today; if so, it’s unbelievably disgusting.

  24. Mikey!! How are you? Don’t blame me for the direction the commentary thread takes. I have nothing against sick people in Libby, and WR Grace should have paid the price. But, as usual, you hurt my feelings with your predictable invective. The only thing I’m “gloating” about is the fact that I have a larger brain than you, but then again, we both knew that. Isn’t it time for you to watch “The Daily Show”? Don’t miss it!!!! Cheers.

  25. Nice bit of self-promotion there Joan, claiming the only “consistent” reporting on the Libby asbestos scandal was in your publication. Go read the ground-breaking reports done by the Seattle Post Intelligencer. They were way ahead of you ….

  26. According to Ring, environmentalists are supposed to be some kind of super-humans who are all things to all people. Need a union or a family health clinic or lawyers? Blame environmentalists if they don’t show up. If your agency’s mission is to protect wildlife but you spend all your time trying to save people, you are being dishonest with your donor’s money.

  27. Who failed the people of Libby? W.R. Grace and the EPA. Not to mention Montana’s Governor. No one else. Oh, and where was the local newspaper, or rather, where was their backbone? Why did Andrew Schneider from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have to be the first to break the story of the tragedy of Libby? Lots of people are ahead of enviromentalists in the long line of people who failed Libby!