LIBBY, Mont. — Think what you will of Gayla Benefield, but on more occasions than one and often to the dismay of many in Libby, she’s been the town’s iconoclast.
When miners were happy going to work in the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine because it meant they were able to put food on their family’s table, she was among a very few people who had the guts to question those in power when one miner, in particular, began to cough.
“I remember sitting at the table in the 1970s, watching my father’s health decline and thinking, ‘Maybe that damn dust has something to do with it,’ ” Benefield told the Daily Inter Lake.
The dust she’s referring to is toxic amphibole asbestos dust that settled into people’s lungs upon exposure, causing deadly diseases such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
It’s asbestos-related diseases such as these that claimed the life of Benefield’s father, Perley, in 1974, her mother Margaret in 1996 and her husband David in 2015. It’s also the illness that is slowly claiming the lives of four of her five children, as well as her own.
But Gayla and her family’s fates were not brought about by their own volition.
“Born by the grace of God, dying by the gods of Grace,” Benefield said, referencing a two-line poem by Gary Swenson that for her, has taken on a very literal meaning. “They just let it happen and for a while they got rich doing it.”
By “they,” Benefield is referring to the Grace executives who knowingly allowed their employees to continue working in a vermiculite mine contaminated with toxic asbestos. Not a word was uttered from those who cut the paychecks as the mining operation that once brought Libby economic prosperity became a long, agonizing death sentence for so many townspeople.
Benefield and a few others, like feisty Les Skramstad who died of asbestos disease in 2007, loudly voiced concerned for the health of miners and their families and demanded answers from Grace.
“In many ways W.R. Grace was good to Libby. That’s why everyone denied this for so long,” Benefield said. “We live by that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, but I’ve never been a fan of bullies.”
By the time her mother died, Benefield had done her research and was armed with irrefutable evidence that Grace had failed its workers and their families.
She had spent years scouring court documents and company paperwork trying to understand how her mother, the first miner’s wife to be diagnosed with asbestosis, perished from the same disease as her father despite never having set foot in the mine. What she had discovered was years of abuse of power, tracing back the beginning of Grace’s reign in the 1960s. One document in particular — an internal memo from 1969 — showed how 92 percent of long-term workers suffered pulmonary diseases. Of course, those findings were never disclosed to workers.
“I started telling my friends and family. Then I reached out to local government,” Benefield recalls. “When no one wanted to listen I strolled into the Capitol, and I didn’t stop until people pretty much hated me.”
Benefield, now 76, said she never wanted to be famous, she just wanted justice for her family. She eventually got both.
Shortly after being awarded $250,000 in a wrongful death claim for her mother in 1998, the media — to the disappointment of many in Lincoln County — caught wind that people were dying from lung diseases in the rural community.
They found their primary source, and a paper trail, in Benefield. And in November 1999, after the story unfolded in the Daily Inter Lake and days later in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the town’s secret was exposed.
“I’ll tell you what, I may have been the least-liked person in all of Libby,” Benefield said with a laugh. “There are some people who probably still think that, and I’ve made peace with that.”
Even at that point, when Libby fell under national spotlight, most continued turning a blind eye to the problem. In the first Daily Inter Lake article on the issue, one former Grace employee was quoted saying, “It’s something no wants to talk about; I don’t want my name associated with anything.”
Sources say it took the better part of two decades before people would talk about the fall from Grace openly.
Even today, following hundreds of deaths and thousands of diagnoses, few people are willing to discuss the crisis despite having come to terms with everything that happened.
“I’ve had people who denied everything for years come up and thank me quietly,” Benefield said. “It’s taken a long time, but people have come around.”
Benefield, community leaders, doctors, lawyers, environmentalists and others all agree that eventually, as generations all fell victim to the same disease, people started realizing that something bigger might be happening.
Roger Sullivan, a senior partner with McGarvey, Heberling, Sullivan and Lacey Law in Kalispell, uses a ripple-effect analogy to explain the rise in Libby’s concern and curiosity as it pertains to the toxicity and latency period of the disease, which can be anywhere from 20 to 40 years.
“The whole dilemma of latent disease runs through this whole genre of litigation. You can have an exposure that doesn’t manifest as a disease until many years after you’ve had the exposure,” Sullivan said.
The first ripple, which went unnoticed by many, occurred in the 1980s when older Grace employees who had worked in the mine for decades were being diagnosed with lung diseases.
Libby’s exposure to asbestos dust goes back further than Grace’s tenure at the mine, which stretched from 1963 to 1990 when the mine closed. The mine was started a century ago, in 1919, in the upper reaches of Rainy Creek. Ore mined by an open-cut method was first shipped in 1925, and in the late 1930s mine owner Universal Insulation Co. merged with Zonolite co. and the mine adopted the Zonolite name.
Sullivan, who is one of the attorneys at his firm who has represented diagnosed clients for decades, said it wasn’t until the second ripple that a visible pattern emerged.
That ripple occurred in the mid-1990s shortly after the vermiculite mine ceased its operations, when younger workers who had gone to work at the mine in their late teens and early 20s developed the same cough as those twice their age.
“On a human scale, it was deeply troubling. From a legal point of view, it was enormously challenging trying to get our hands around just what was going on,” Sullivan said.
But it’s the third ripple, when the disease took its toll on the wives and children of those who hadn’t set foot in the mine, that was the most troubling. He points to Benefield’s family as an obvious scenario.
“If you can develop the significant disease from which Margaret died on the basis of shaking out her husband’s overalls when he got home from work, that has to be some pretty toxic stuff. You begin to develop a base of information upon which you begin wondering, ‘How extensive is this going to be?’ ”
By 2000, the growing caseloads against Grace spoke for themselves as the Coalition for Asbestos Resolution told the Daily Inter Lake that nearly 200,000 asbestos cases were pending in state and federal courts, and as many as 50,000 new cases were being filed every year.
According to Sullivan, two decades later those cases continue to trickle in, albeit at a slower rate.