Libby, Montana, is the site of one of America's worst man-made environmental disasters. Toxic asbestos dust from the vermiculite mines that helped the town prosper for decades has killed hundreds of residents, sickening thousands more. Victims continue to surface.
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. An estimated 400 Libby residents have died and almost three thousand more are currently suffering illnesses related to asbestos exposure. The mine closed in 1990, but 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. The EPA set up an information center in Libby to address the problem. What followed is the largest, longest-running asbestos cleanup project in American history.
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. The EPA declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby, a first for the agency.
The EPA has made progress, but cleanup efforts continue. As of 2016, the EPA has investigated more than 7,300 properties and completed cleanups at 2,275 other sites, including all schools and parks, the former vermiculite processing plants and other contaminated public areas. The EPA estimates that a few hundred locations are still in need of mitigation and expects to finish those projects in the next two to three years.
Thousands of Libby residents and former Grace & Co. mine workers have filed lawsuits against the state for a failure to warn them of the dangerous levels of asbestos contaminating the vermiculite mine. In 2011, a district court judge approved a $43 million settlement with more than 1,300 plaintiffs. An estimated 200 of those plaintiffs began receiving their portion of the settlement in 2012, more than a decade after the first lawsuit was filed.
The second major payout came in January 2017, when more than 1,000 people were awarded a $25 million settlement. Montana agencies continue to claim that the state had no legal obligation to provide warning of the mine’s dangers.
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