Les Skramstad was a good, decent man.  He died earlier this month at 70-years young, from damage inflicted years earlier by greedy and reckless employers. 

Les was a miner and laborer at the infamous vermiculite mine at Zonolite Mountain in Libby, Montana.  The owners and operators of the mine, including W.R. Grace, knew that the pit contained their product of interest, vermiculite, but also tremolite asbestos.  They knew the deadly consequences for people exposed to asbestos fibers, yet they intentionally withheld this information from their employees, their customers and government officials. [1]

In tributes published by the Associated Press, Washington Post and other papers, Mr. Skramstad was described as the “activist who became a public face for victims of absestos-related disease.”   Yes, Les Skramstad as an activist, but not of the boisterous, rabble-rousing mold.  He is unforgettable for his activism because of his thoughful and reserved disposition, his deep thirst for justice, and his desire to prevent similiar industrial crimes from afflicting other families and communities. 

I met Les Skramstad for the first time in August 2000 at the VFW Hall in Libby, MT.  A group of scientists, physicians and residents were gathered for a small EPA/ATSDR-sponsored conference entitled “Asbestos and Public Health.”  I attended along with a couple of my colleagues from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).  While toxicologists and pulmonologists made presentations in the large meeting room next door, I sat with Les near a billiard table listening to him describe his work at the Zonolite mine. 

He explained how the ore was extracted and transported to the mill, and how it was processed in the expansion plant.  Les told me about the dust—the brownish-gray dust that covered everything—the trucks, the trees, the ground, and the people, and about his job as a sweeper.  He remembered how the miners viewed the thick dust as a nuisance, and how it was actually described that way by the bosses. 

“Don’t worry about that dust,” they’d say.  “There’s nothing in it that will hurt you.” [2] 

After recalling those deceptive words, Les’ demeanor changed, from a factual recitation of events, to anger and then to sadness.  Rightfully so, Les Skramstad was angry that men would treat other men with such disrespect.  He told me something like this:

“They knew the ore was filled with asbestos, but they lied to us about it.  If they had told us the truth about the danger, about the risk, at least each man would have been able to decide for himself and for his family whether to work at the mine or not.”

He was also deeply saddened that his job at the mine, more precisely, the dust from the mine, became a death sentence for his family.  His wife Norita and three of their five children were diagnosed with asbestosis.  I recall him barely able to get the words out, the heartache was so much to bear.

“Norita would shake the dust out of my mining clothes before she washed them.  The dust was everywhere in the yard, just like it was everywhere in the town.”

He would pause.  It was so sad to see this lovely man in pain –a pain much worse than the lung disease.

I learned an important lesson from Les Skramstad, and one that I hope I will never forget: Make ways to listen to the workers, and talk to them before they get sick or injured.  Afterwards is too late.

——-
[1] Read An Air That Kills: How the Asbestos Poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal, by Andrew Schneider and David McCumber, New York: Putnam’s Sons, 2004, for the entire story.

[2] These quotes are based on my recollection of my conversations with Les Skramstad.  They appear in quotation marks for effect, not for precision.

Celeste Monforton, MPH is a senior research associate at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.  She worked at OSHA from 1991-1995 and MSHA from 1996-2001.

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