Q&A with Andrew Schneider Part 2: What to do when the big story finds you
Last week, I spoke with former Seattle Post-Intelligencer investigative reporter, Andrew Schneider, about his best known story, Uncivil Action, the story about Libby, Mont., and how it was polluted by asbestos from the W.R. Grace Co.'s vermiculite mine. Schneider spent the first part of 2009 covering the trial for the P-I and then, when the P-I folded, covering it for his blog, which is now called Cold Truth. I talked with him about covering the trial and about how the asbestos story has followed him throughout his career.
Here is a recap of the second part of our conversation, edited for clarity and space.
Q: How odd was it for you to be there at the trial? Here was a story that you had dogged for a decade and now prosecutors were using some of the facts you dug up to go after W. R. Grace.
A: The U.S. attorney was very blunt about it and said that our book ["An Air That Kills"] gave them the blueprint for the investigation. They knew who to go interview and what documents to look for. They took it way beyond what I did because they had to.
Q: Was it jarring to hear your book quoted in the trial?
A: What was really bizarre was how it was quoted almost constantly by Grace's lawyers. I'm sitting in there and David Bernick says, "Mr. Schneider wrote in his book that you ABC and D and is this true?"
Q: Did anyone change their story?
A: They all stuck by what they said. Everyone.
Q: Still, that had to be a little nerve-wracking, thinking that one of them might say you
misrepresented what they said or flat out made something up.
A: I just didn't think that was possible. I'm sitting in the back row where the press was situated. These were guys that I knew. These were, in my mind, really courageous guys. Paul Peronard. Aubrey Miller, the physician. Chris Weis, the toxicologist. Some of the other doctors. It was interesting to see them sit there and back up their words.
Q: When you knew that the trial was coming up, did you tell yourself that you were going to try to be impartial? You had to think that any verdict would be in some way a verdict on your work. That had to make it tough to remain objective.
A: I had a very hard time doing that. I reported accurately what was said on both sides of the case, but I kept saying to myself, "You lying son of a bitch." I was writing a blog, so that gave me a little more freedom. I started writing the blog while the P-I was still in business and it didn't change after they went out of business. There were several times in the blog where I said, "I can't write about this. Here's a link to what the Missoulian did or what Bloomberg did. Or the kids from the University of Montana. There were things that I could not report on because I knew the lawyers were not being honest. If we were doing this for the newspaper, and it really was still the newspaper, and the newspaper wanted to cover it, I probably would not be the right person to do the job. But the P-I felt that it was my story, and that's why we were following it. They felt I had enough professionalism to walk to that line carefully. I could scream "bullshit" now and then, but I had to walk the line.
Q: What were some of the things that made you scream "bullshit"?
A: Mostly it wasn't over what was said out loud in court. It was how the court proceedings unfolded. It was how Dave Bernick, the $1,000-an-hour lawyer, manipulated the system. He was a great lawyer. I hated the man's guts but repeatedly in the blog I talked about how damn skillful he was. He was the reason that they won, that and the fact that Judge Malloy made some very bizarre rulings.
Q: You have been following asbestos ever since those first Libby stories. Pardon the metaphor, but it's almost as if the asbestos has burrowed into you, and you can't shake it.
A: I came back to Seattle [from the Baltimore Sun] promising myself I would never write about asbestos again. My wife and I went back to the East Coast and she was an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and I was the deputy projects editor. That's when I wrote about the indictments. When I was at the Baltimore Sun, where I was the national projects editor, I wrote more about Grace and their role in the aftermath of 9/11. Grace had pumped thousands and thousands of pounds of Monokote fireproofing into those twin towers. It was in the dust, and everyone knew that, but everyone was saying that everything was just fine. The damn story would not die no matter where I went. I come back to Seattle saying, "I will never write about asbestos again." And the first story I do is about some river flowing through a farming community loaded with naturally-occurring asbestos. It's just an act of God, I think.
Q: And most recently it took you to Spokane. How did you find out that the EPA was going to be doing some asbestos monitoring there?
A: This is because the story of Libby really extends beyond Libby. I knew, and many EPA scientists knew, that the surveys that had been done on hundreds of sites around the country where vermiculite ore was processed into insulation had been mostly useless. They were windshield surveys, drive-bys. The Times of Trenton had looked at a couple of these sites and did some damn good stories. But for the most part, no one else touched it. There arepeople undoubtedly who have died in neighborhoods all around the country, but no one is writing about it. And now the EPA is finally going back and using the technology necessary to evaluate these sites and find out how toxic they are. I get calls and emails every day from sources saying this is happening and that's happening and you should know about it. I got a call about what was about to happen in Spokane, and I said, "What the hell. It's only 800 miles away."