Libby, Montana

PBS Premiere: Aug. 28, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmakers

Karla from Colorado asks: I grew up in Libby and I found this documentary very interesting and educational. My question is about the choices you made when deciding who to include in the film, and about your editing of the film. Why did you decide to include the man by the roadside who held up signs? How did you think he fit into the main topic of the film?

Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr: Thanks for your comment and questions. Richard Weeks (the guy on the park bench by the road) was regularly in Libby holding signs with different provocative messages when we were shooting in Libby. Ultimately, the film is not just about the environmental contamination of the place, but about Libby, Montana, itself. We thought Richard had a unique perspective on the town and the problems that his community was facing.

Ann from New York asks: What happened to the W.R. Grace executives who were indicted for their roles in the Libby contamination?

Hawes-Davis and Gunn Carr: The seven executives for W. R. Grace were indicted in February 2005 for their alleged role in "knowingly endangering residents of Libby, Montana, and concealing information about the health affects of its asbestos mining operations" (quote from the U. S. Department of Justice 2005 press release). The indictment also charges the executives with obstructing the government's cleanup efforts in Libby. "A human and environmental tragedy has occurred in Libby," said William W. Mercer, U.S. Attorney for the District of Montana. "This prosecution seeks to hold Grace and its executives responsible for the misconduct alleged." You can read the entire press release on the indictment on the Department of Justice's website at:

As of September 2007, the trial is yet to take place. This is due, in part, to numerous legal motions and appeals by both W. R. Grace and the U. S. government. At one point, W. R. Grace challenged the judge in the case to ban any alleged asbestos victims from testifying in the trial. The judge agreed with Grace, and ruled that no Libby asbestos victims would be allowed to testify. But on appeal, the ruling was overturned, thereby ensuring that at least some asbestos victims from Libby will be allowed to testify about the physical, emotional and social effects of their disease on themselves and their families.

The trial has now been set for September of this year (2007).

I have talked to many people in Libby about how they feel about the indictments. Les Skramstad, who was in our film, was relieved with the indictments, and was looking forward to being in the courtroom during the trial. Les died in January 2007 from mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Les's friend Gayla Benefield told me that before his death, Les asked her to blow up a life-size photo of him and set it in the front row of the courtroom during the trial. Les said: "I still want to be there to watch it all play out, and I want [the Grace executives] to see me there."

In February 2007, Alan Stringer, one of the indicted Grace executives, died at the age of 62. Stringer was the last Zonolite Mine manager in Libby, and the sole representative for Grace who stayed in Libby during the years after the mine closure, and up until 2006 (Stringer is included in the film during a town meeting. He declined to be interviewed). His family has reported that asbestos was not the cause of his death. We have no other direct information on the other co-defendants in the case; however, their names are listed in the Department of Justice press release.

Mark from Washington asks: I am a fireman in Spokane, Washington, and I have been in houses with this type of insulation. What types of precaution can I and my co-workers take in these situations, and how dangerous is vermiculite exposure if one is only exposed to it in the short term?

Hawes-Davis and Gunn Carr: For more specific precautions when dealing with short-term exposure to vermiculite when working around the material, we would suggest that you consult the Environmental Protection Agency's website. The website offers many pages of information about asbestos, vermiculite, and how to protect yourself from the asbestos that may be associated with vermiculite insulation.

Derek from Pennsylvania asks: The inevitable epilogue of the film is the slow and systematic demise of the amazingly strong yet terribly ill people of Libby. How did knowing this affect you as you shot the film, and how do you feel now?

Hawes-Davis and Gunn Carr: We got to know many people in Libby. They invited us into their homes and trusted us to turn on our camera as they described some of the most intimate, heart-felt details from their lives. There were times during these conversations where we found it difficult to conduct an interview. It felt as if we were somehow intruding on sacred ground as they talked about the deaths of spouses, mothers and fathers, and the illnesses of sons and daughters. But over time, we came to understand that most people who had been affected by asbestos-related disease wanted to tell their story. "We've been in the shadows for too long," was the general comment that we heard from many people in Libby.

When we started filming, we were simply hearing stories about disease and death. But soon, the stories gave way to the realities of the situation. One of the first asbestos victims that we interviewed, Don Kaeding, died that same year (Don was interviewed but was not in the final version of the film). Bob Wilkins died in 2002. Clint Meadows (the 21 year-old young man in the film) was diagnosed with lung abnormalities. Les Skramstad's health deteriorated steadily during the course of filming.

All of this made us more resolved to make the film. At that point, we were mostly intent on doing the job. Did we ask moral and ethical questions of ourselves while we are filming? Yes, especially when it comes to the inevitable questions about exploitation. This concern, at times, helped us to focus on the bigger picture about what was happening in Libby -- the medical screening, the EPA cleanup, the W. R. Grace bankruptcy and the overall social and political implications of the situation.

Co-director Drury Gunn Carr adds: Late in 2006, I talked to Les Skramstad on the phone for the last time. He died soon after, in January of 2007, of mesothelioma (a rare cancer related to asbestos exposure). I had become friends with Les over the last few years, and this was a very sad time. Going to his funeral, however, gave me some sense of relief. There were hundreds of people there from around the state of Montana who had come to pay their respects to Les, who had become a hero to many for his tireless advocacy for Libby asbestos victims.

It is difficult, sometimes, to find the silver lining in Libby. I think that the way the film ends acknowledges this fact. But if I am pressed to find that silver lining (personally), it would be in the relationships that we were able to make in Libby. It is sad that the reason that I met Les Skramstad was because he had a terminal disease, but I am very lucky to have known him. The same can be said for Gayla Benefield and many others that we were privileged to meet and come to know in Libby. These dedicated, courageous people, who live in this small, isolated town, are testaments to what can be accomplished by just a handful of people. And I can only hope that their work to bring attention to the plight of Libby and its people will help to prevent another such terrible situation from happening again.