Libby, Montana, is the story of a town discovering and then coping with toxic asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines that supplied jobs to more than 200 residents and helped Libby prosper for decades. Libby residents have suffered with asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, but their story is ongoing. Victims continue to surface. And there are Libby residents who realize they, too, may be in danger.
The story can be traced back to 1919 when companies first started pulling vermiculite out of mines in Libby. Known commercially as Zonolite, vermiculite was used in a variety of construction materials including insulation for homes and buildings. Decades of mining the vermiculite exposed workers and residents to toxic asbestos dust.
When W.R. Grace & Company took over operation of the mines in 1963, they knew the vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos and that it caused health complications. But they didn’t warn anyone, so mining continued. As a result, hundreds of Libby residents have died and almost two thousand more are currently suffering illnesses related to asbestos exposure. Yet the devastation caused by the mining industry in Libby didn’t gain national attention or receive government intervention until 1999 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stepped in and began to clean up the town.
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Vermiculite mining in Libby began more than 80 years ago when E.N. Alley bought the Rainy Creek claims and launched Zonolite Company. In 1963, the Maryland-based W.R. Grace and Company acquired Alley’s Zonolite business.
By this time vermiculite had been mined for more than 40 years in an area about seven miles outside of Libby. Before Grace took over ownership of the mine, a number of employees developed lung problems and several fatalities were reported. Despite these health issues, the company claimed they were “unaware of the hazards of mining and milling vermiculite” when they purchased the business.
But W.R. Grace executives did know about the mine’s high level of tremolite asbestos dust and that exposure to the dust was damaging to the lungs, yet they never said anything to their employees.
Townspeople were also affected by the asbestos-tainted vermiculite, as Grace had distributed their leftover vermiculite for use in playgrounds, backyards, gardens, roads and a number of other popular locations in the town. While the asbestos was circulating in the air around the mine, it also was included in baseball fields and other areas where children and citizens commonly spent their time.
When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote a series of articles about Libby in 1999, titled “Uncivil Action: A Town Left to Die,” the story of the people of Libby finally gained national attention. Shortly following the release of the series, the EPA set up an information center in Libby to address the problem.
Clean-up began slowly at first as EPA workers identified the sources of contamination and began an extensive Superfund investigation. It was a project unlike any that the EPA had ever seen. Vermiculite needed to be removed from Libby homes and businesses and the mine site needed to be addressed. Contamination of natural resources demanded a large scale investigation as well. Libby was finally placed on the Superfund list in 2002. In 2008 Grace was ordered to provide $250 million to cover future clean-up costs.
As of 2010, the EPA had cleaned up 1,460 businesses and residences and removed about 900,000 cubic yards of contaminated material, yet many more projects remain. Residents have been trained to recognize asbestos because even the EPA admits that even after the job is considered to be finished contamination may still remain.
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