Montana suffered one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history because of years of corporate greed and inaction over asbestos exposure and contamination. Although Montana now has a variety of public health organizations to keep residents safe and informed, more work needs to be done to ensure public safety.Find Top Doctors in Montana
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Nationally, most asbestos exposure occurs in occupational settings, but the history of vermiculite mining near the city of Libby, Montana, provides an unfortunate exception.
For decades, the Zonolite Company and its successor W.R. Grace extracted vermiculite contaminated with extremely toxic tremolite asbestos from the ground. Pollution from the mining has been associated with more than 400 deaths in the Libby area, and today more than 1,500 people in Libby — about half the city’s population — have fallen ill as a result of exposure to asbestos.
After sickening local residents, the contaminated vermiculite was sent on to processing plants, where workers were exposed, before finally being shipped into stores and homes across the nation. Today an estimated 35 million homes may be at risk of asbestos contamination because of W.R. Grace’s Zonolite attic insulation product alone.
Beyond the area around Libby, the once-routine use of asbestos construction and insulation products at power plants, refineries, factories and construction sites have led to numerous diagnoses of cancer and other asbestos-related diseases.
Old asbestos-containing materials continue to threaten people who work, live and go to school in aging buildings all over Montana.
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As a cheap insulating material, asbestos was once ubiquitous in construction, resource extraction and heavy industry. Most diagnoses of asbestos-related diseases trace back to regular long-term exposure from working or living near a contaminated job site.
W.R. Grace’s asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mines are the most notorious example, but miners at several other sites around Montana have carried a high risk of exposure as well. Asbestos naturally occurs in many geological formations, and the asbestos industry covered up the evidence of its toxicity until the 1970s.
Asbestos is a famously heat-resistant mineral, which is why it was long valued as an ingredient in all types of insulation. At Montana’s many oil and chemical refineries and ore smelters, high-temperature pipes and equipment were often encased in high-percentage asbestos insulation and cement.
Asbestos-containing materials were also used from the very beginning of power generation in Montana, putting power plant workers at risk of exposure for most of the 20th century. Factory workers endured dangerous working conditions because of asbestos construction materials as well as raw asbestos used in manufacturing.
When the modern lumber industry came to Montana, it brought asbestos-based fireproofing, which made lumber mills safer in the short-term but more dangerous for workers in the long term. Montana’s paper mills also used sheets of asbestos felt fabric as drying surfaces for paper pulp.
Sugar beets may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of asbestos-exposure risks, but wherever there is high-temperature refining equipment — be it for oil or sugar — chances are asbestos-insulation was part of the construction. Workers came into contact with asbestos materials at many of Montana’s mills and food-processing plants.
In 2011, the Associated Press found asbestos-contaminated wood chips and tree bark were being distributed across the state and used in public parks, yards and outside schools, potentially harming countless residents and workers. It’s unclear exactly where the contaminated wood was placed, so residents were warned to be aware of public areas with landscaping.
From 1923 to 1990, an estimated 5,000 pounds of asbestos or more was released into the air from vermiculite mines near Libby every day. According to an epidemiology analysis, mortality rates from 1979 to 1998 for asbestos-related diseases in Libby were 40 times higher than the rest of the state and 60 times higher than national rates.
In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added Libby to its Superfund National Priorities List — a designation that gives the country’s most contaminated areas dedicated federal funding for cleanup.
The EPA also declared Libby a “public-health emergency” in 2009 — the first of its kind in the nation. It wasn’t until 2014 that the EPA determined the cleanup efforts successful and declared the city safe.
The Superfund designation resulted in several penalties and fines for W.R. Grace. This includes a nearly $3 million settlement in 2001 with the EPA and the Department of Justice to fund local health care programs and a $63 million payment to the U.S. government in 2014 to resolve environmental cleanup claims at 39 related Superfund sites nationwide.
In 2017, the Montana legislature established the Libby Asbestos Superfund Advisory Team as part of the process of transferring responsibility for the cleanup from the federal government to the state government.
The legislature also created a special Asbestos Claims Court to accelerate the resolution of more than 500 asbestos cases that have been tied up in Montana courts for years.
Despite these positive steps, there were also worrisome signs in 2017 that Montana’s government still has not come to grips with its history of asbestos problems. Ingraham Environmental Inc., a prominent asbestos-abatement company, filed a lawsuit alleging the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is failing to enforce the laws meant to protect Montana residents from unsafe asbestos disposal.
At the federal level, the passage of the Affordable Care Act brought some good news for victims of asbestos exposure in Montana. The “Exposure to Environmental Health Hazards” provision extends eligibility for Medicare benefits to anyone diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease who resided in Lincoln County at least 10 years before their diagnosis.
By 1980, scientific evidence had finally clarified the link between asbestos exposure from W.R. Grace’s vermiculite mining and the increasing number of company employees dying from diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
The company found itself under pressure from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and a wave of personal injury and wrongful death litigation. At one point, W.R. Grace faced more than 112,000 asbestos lawsuits.
Unable to pay the liabilities, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001 and went on to establish a court-ordered $3 billion trust fund for asbestos settlements.
In 2008, the company agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit over its attic insulation product and pay up to $140 million.
Fast fact: Grace is still required to fulfill the financial obligations established through the WRG Asbestos Personal Injury Trust and the WRG Asbestos Property Damage Trust.
W.R. Grace remained under bankruptcy protection for more than 12 years, allowing it to hit a long-term pause button on debt collections. During that time, W.R. Grace weathered two recessions and emerged as a promising specialty-chemical company now simply called Grace.
Victims of Libby asbestos have also received compensation through lawsuits against the state of Montana for failing to protect workers and residents from harmful pollution.
In 2011, the state government agreed to a $43 million settlement to resolve cases involving more than 1,300 plaintiffs. Another $25 million settlement followed in 2017, and future settlements are likely as Montana residents continue to develop asbestos-related diseases because of exposure that occurred decades before.
Local resources are available to cancer patients in Montana. The Montana Cancer Coalition and the Montana Cancer Consortium strive to improve cancer treatment throughout the region.
Team Up Montana raises funds for financial assistance for cancer patients, and the Montana chapter of the Cancer Support Community provides a variety of support services for patients and their families. The American Cancer Society and American Lung Association also organize local programs and events through their regional offices.
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Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website. He also holds a certificate in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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