N.C. Asbestos Tragedy: Another Libby, Montana?

By Mary E. Alexander & Lynn R. Laufenberg

Men who spent their lives working in the Weyerhaeuser Co.’s paper mill in rural Plymouth, North Carolina, used to consider themselves lucky. They had steady jobs that paid well, allowing them to provide a good life for their families. They looked forward to retiring and enjoying the good life.

Instead, their retirement days are filled with sickness and death from diseases caused by asbestos, a deadly fiber used as insulation in the mill, where it filled the air for decades. Even worse, the men must live with the knowledge that they carried asbestos dust home on their work clothes, exposing their wives and children, too.

Like many American workers, the men in Plymouth never knew they were breathing poison on a daily basis. But Weyerhaeuser knew about the health risk at its mill, yet did nothing to warn or protect employees and their families, according to an in-depth report by The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Internal company documents show that Weyerhaeuser knew as early as 1972 that workers were in danger from exposure to high levels of asbestos, the newspaper reported.

Grover Barber, who retired in 1997 after 44 years at the mill, is one of the workers who learned the truth too late. He has asbestos-caused lung damage; his wife has asbestosis, an incurable disease that reduces lung capacity and makes it hard to breathe.

“[The company’s conduct] really burns me up, and I’m not the only one …,” Barber told The News & Observer. “If it were not for Weyerhaeuser, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I worked for them. I did what was asked of me. I earned what they paid me. But if I did anything to mess up this big, I ought to be held accountable. And they should be held accountable, too.”

Corporate cover-ups are common when it comes to asbestos, according to lawyers who represent injured workers. One well-known example is the tiny town of Libby, Montana, where manufacturer W.R. Grace hid the truth while exposing thousands to asbestos from its vermiculite mining operation. Hundreds of Libby residents who worked in the mine and their family members have died and many more will.

A lawyer familiar with the North Carolina situation described it as “another Libby.” In Plymouth, dozens and dozens of current mill workers, retirees and family members already are suffering from cancer and asbestosis. More have asbestos-caused lung damage that could worsen over time. Some have died.

Those who have tried to hold Weyerhaeuser responsible for its actions have been met with opposition from the company. The North Carolina Industrial Commission, which decides workers’ compensation cases, already has ruled that the company should pay 66 of its employees for their asbestos injuries. But the company is appealing all 66 cases. Hundreds more are pending.

In response to a lawsuit filed by five wives with asbestosis, Weyerhaeuser argued the case should be thrown out because the company had no legal duty to protect the women. A judge ruled against Weyerhaeuser in January, allowing the lawsuit to continue.

For many former employees, the company’s betrayal makes a terrible situation even harder to bear.

“You get a lot of depression knowing that the company you worked for half your life isn’t going to help you,” former mill worker Robert Smith, who has trouble breathing due to asbestos disease, told the Raleigh newspaper.