Most asbestos exposure occurs in occupational settings. The history of vermiculite mining near Libby, Montana, provides an unfortunate exception.
For decades, mining extracted vermiculite contaminated with toxic tremolite asbestos from the ground. The Zonolite Company and its successor W.R. Grace operated the mine.
Pollution from the mining has caused more than 694 deaths in the Libby area. A 2021 study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology reported these figures. The study also reported a 15-fold increased risk of mesothelioma among W.R Grace workers compared to residents who didn’t work around the mine.
At least 1 in 10 people currently have an asbestos-related illness, according to the Center for Asbestos Related Disease in Libby. More than 2,400 people in Libby — about half the city’s population — have fallen ill as a result of exposure to asbestos.
The contaminated vermiculite went to processing plants throughout the country. This exposed workers in the plants. An estimated 35 million homes may contain W.R. Grace’s Zonolite attic insulation.
The use of asbestos-containing construction and insulation products exposed workers throughout Montana. Power plants, refineries, factories and construction sites exposed workers to asbestos-containing materials.
At-Risk Occupations in Montana
Asbestos was once prevalent in construction, resource extraction and heavy industry. Most diagnoses of asbestos-related diseases trace back to regular long-term exposure. This happens working in an occupation that used asbestos products or living near a contaminated job site.
W.R. Grace’s asbestos-contaminated vermiculite mines are the most notorious example. Miners at several other sites around Montana have carried a high risk of exposure as well.
Refineries and Smelters
Asbestos is a heat-resistant mineral, which is why it was long valued as an ingredient in all types of insulation. Montana’s many oil and chemical refineries and ore smelters used it. High-temperature pipes and equipment were often encased in high-percentage asbestos insulation and cement.
Power Plants and Factories
Asbestos materials were also used from the very beginning of power generation in Montana. Factory workers endured dangerous working conditions because of asbestos construction materials. Raw asbestos used in manufacturing was very dangerous.
Lumber and Paper Mills
When the modern lumber industry came to Montana, it brought asbestos-based fireproofing. It 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 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. Wherever there is high-temperature refining equipment — be it for oil or sugar — chances are it involved asbestos insulation. Workers came into contact with asbestos materials at many of Montana’s mills and food-processing plants.
Public Parks and Land
In 2011, the Associated Press found asbestos-contaminated wood chips and tree bark in public parks, yards and outside schools. It’s unclear exactly where the contaminated wood was placed, so residents were warned to be aware of public areas with landscaping.
Montana Job Sites with Confirmed Asbestos Exposure
- Karst Mine
- Stillwater Mining Company
- Conoco oil refinery (Billings Refinery)
- Billings Sugar Company (Western Sugar Cooperative)
- Boise Cascade plywood company
- J.E. Corette power plant
- Anaconda Copper Mining Company
- Montana Power Company
- Victor Chemical Works
- Glasgow Air Force Base
- General Mills
- ASARCO lead smelter
- W.R. Grace & Company vermiculite mine
- St. Regis Paper Company
- J. Neils Lumber Company
- Texaco oil refinery
Libby Mine Superfund Site
From 1923 to 1990, at least 5,000 pounds of asbestos was released into the air from vermiculite mines near Libby every day. 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 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 were successful and declared the city safe.
Decontamination efforts continued over the next several years. In 2018, the EPA completed the cleanup of more than 3,000 sites, including businesses, yards and parks throughout the area.
In 2021, the agency announced the end of restoration efforts in another section of the project covering all roadways and major highways in and between Libby and nearby Troy, Montana.
The site’s 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.
Montana Asbestos Laws
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 that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is failing to enforce the laws meant to protect Montana residents from unsafe asbestos disposal.
Cancer Support Resources in Montana
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.