Q&A with Andrew Schneider Part 1: What to do when the big story finds you

Published on
July 10, 2009

Andrew Schneider is one of the country's most accomplished investigative journalists. His work has won not just one, but two Pulitzer Prizes, and countless other awards. I had the privilege of meeting him when both of us were finalists for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting at Harvard. My team lost. So did his. He was there because of the investigative series in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that has been the defining story of his career, the story of how the chemical company, W.R. Grace, ran a vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont., that so polluted the surrounding environment that the people of Libby started getting cancer and asbestosis at alarming rates.

Government agencies at a variety of levels ignored the problems, including Montana's governor at the time, Marc Racicot, who happened to be Libby's most famous native son. Schneider and David McCumber wrote a book about it called "An Air That Kills" in 2006.

Largely because of Schneider's work, the U.S. Department of Justice finally filed charges against Grace in a case that went to trial this year and ended in an acquittal. Just a week after that verdict, though, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided to declare Libby a Public Health Emergency.

Schneider now writes for the site he created, Cold Truth. I reached him at his home outside of Seattle. Here is a recap of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and space. I'll post the second part of our conversation next week.

Q: What prompted you to start reporting about Libby in 1999?

A: I was at a conference at the CDC and a doc I knew was talking about Montana, saying how beautiful it was and that he was going to go out there and find some town in Montana where a bunch of people had died of cancer. That was all he could remember. That sort of planted the seed in my mind. A photographer and I were out in Montana for the Post-Intelligencer. Three of us had been on the road for two-and-a-half months doing a story on the 1872 mining law.

Q: That sounds ambitious.

A: It was. We had been to almost every state that had a hard rock mine. One of my colleagues had been talking to an environmental group in Helena, who said we should go up to Libby. We were only 300 miles away, so why not? In Libby, one of the local activists was convinced that the mine was killing people but said she couldn't talk to us on the record about it because her lawyer didn't want her to. We went to the top of the hill where the mine was, and she was showing us all of these supposed atrocities. But I wasn't buying it. As surface mines go, this looked pretty clean. But to appease her, I grabbed a couple of film cans from the photographer and scooped up some of the soil. I got back to Seattle, and stuck the film cans on a shelf.

Q: Without that activist egging you on in the first place, you might not have had these stories. So often reporters get calls from people who are so fired up about a topic that they sound crazy, or they overwhelm you with records and tiny handwritten notes. You, clearly, weren't put off.

A: I very rarely ignore whistle blowers, no matter how crazy they sound. I've learned too many times over the years that if they are that passionate about something, there's probably something going on. It may not be what they suspect, but there is something going on. I have never had an emotionally passionate source be completely wrong. The kind of stuff she was alleging was preposterous in my mind. How could they have a large number of deaths and nobody knew about? But she was onto something big.

Q: When did you decide to test that dirt for asbestos?

A: First I started checking all the sources I could think of to find out whether anyone knew about a problem in Libby. It became obvious after a month and a half's work that a lot of people were dying there from some kind of occupational exposure, but no one knew a damn thing about it. At least that's what I thought at first. It I didn't show up in OSHA's records or in Mine Safety's records. EPA said they knew nothing about it, and the state of Montana didn't know anything about it. That was enough to get us to chase it.

Q: The fact that no one knew anything about it was actually an incentive for you to investigate further?

A: Right. It made things harder, though, because we didn't initially have any documentation that people were getting sick and dying, just a lot of talk about it and we didn't know what exactly was causing it because we didn't have any test results. Yet, four weeks into it, I decided to send some of those cans of dirt to a local lab. They analyzed and it came back three days later hot as hell with asbestos.

Q: So then you had to hunt for patients. How did that go?

A: None of the local hospitals in Montana would talk to me, but that wasn't that important. I figured if they were really suffering from lung disease and cancer they would be going to tertiary centers anyway. So I called Spokane, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver. Nobody would talk to me. I wasn't asking for patient names. I just wanted to know if they had treated any miners and no one would talk. I had to go to a pulmonologist in Boston that I had known for years. I asked if he would call some of his buddies and ask them about whether they had treated any miners from Libby. It turned out that each of them had at least two miners from Libby that had died of asbestos disease. All of a sudden I had some verification that there were workers who had been sickened by the mine.

Q: A lot of reporters don't like to go after a person or a corporation they feel has been targeted before. W.R. Grace already had been the subject of a huge bestseller, A Civil Action, which then became a hit film starring John Travolta. You even called the name of your series "Uncivil Action." Did it matter to you?

A: With that book, you're right, Grace was accused of poisoning the water and a handful of kids were harmed. Here we were talking about hundreds of people. I didn't care about what had been written before. This was a major public health emergency, and nobody knew a damn thing about it. My publisher at the P-I, J.D. Alexander, was a former Washington Post editor. He had enormous balls, and he wouldn't back off on anything as long as we could prove it.

Q: What was the standard set to prove it?

A: I guess it was me being convinced that there was a story and having the documents or the on-the-record interviews to track how this problem unfolded over the years. And J.D. was always willing to push for better evidence. When we told him that Crayola had asbestos in their crayons and we wanted to write about, J.D. said, "What do you got?" We said, "We tested about 10 crayons and seven of them came back loaded with asbestos." He said, "That's not enough. Aren't there 64 colors in a box? You ought to check them all, damn it!" He just pushed the story and laid the money out so we could do it right.

Q: In the case of the Libby story, that meant a lot of back and forth to Montana. How much time did you spend there?

A: I easily qualified to vote there as a resident. Before the story ran, I probably spent about 40 days there. Over the last decade, I've spent at least 300 days there.

Q: A lot of that time wasn't spent in the mountains or fishing in a stream. You probably spent a fair amount of time in some backroom at a courthouse going over files, right?

A: In the beginning, we didn't have access to court files. There were lots of documents available and eventually we got them, but not at first.

Q: Why is that?

A: The lawyers wanted the story to go to the New York Times. They had been working on building a relationship with a reporter there and thought, why the hell should we waste the story on some reporter from the Seattle P-I when we can get it into the New York Times? So, at one point, I was in the kitchen of this activist who is on the phone with her lawyer saying, "I have a reporter here in the kitchen who wants to talk with us about this," and the lawyer was saying, "We're not talking."

Q: So how did you end up getting records?

A: One of the ways was through a document repository that had been created by W.R. Grace. After the Civil Action case, the judge ordered that W. R. Grace establish a repository of 100,000 documents in Boston that would be open to the public and other lawyers. I had a source on the East Coast who knew exactly what was in those records. So I was able to get a bunch of documents from him, and then we were making contacts with other families who also had access to documents. We ended up gathering about 30,000 documents by the time the story ran.

Q: How did you find Arthur Bundrock's family? They were sort of the poster family for the entire disaster, a miner who has died and left behind a wife with lung disease and four of five children with lung disease.

A: This is a small town we're talking about. Once we got a couple of people to trust us, they would give us someone else. One of the things that presented problems for us was that these are Montanans, very stalwart. They don't complain a lot, most of them. Soon after the story was published there was a large meeting in the school auditorium and hundreds of people came out and the EPA was there and the state mining people and the state health department and all these old timers come in with their canisters of oxygen being pulled behind them. People who lived across the street from each other or next door to each other had no idea their neighbor was sick. They had kept their problems to themselves. Watching things unfold that one night was one of the most shaking things I have experienced as a reporter.

Next week: Schneider sees his story play out in court.