Who lost the big asbestos case in Libby?

Did environmental groups let down the people of Libby? Or was it another bungled federal prosecution by the Bush administration?
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Lawyers at the Missoula courthouse for the Libby trial

Did environmental groups let down the people of Libby? Or was it another bungled federal prosecution by the Bush administration?

In an angry article, Ray Ring of High Country News wrote:

Environmental groups send me many press releases. And I read many news stories about environmental issues and 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 New West.net. 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. 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.


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