Asbestos in Montana

montana
31st

ranking in U.S. for mesothelioma & asbestosis deaths

Montana is home to a mine once operated by W.R. Grace & Co., a corporation known for introducing asbestos into the homes and lives of millions of Americans. Products with asbestos that came from mines in Montana, most notably from the city of Libby, have endangered countless lives. Exposure to asbestos in the small city of Libby has led to financial hardships, health issues and hundreds of deaths. Montana has been plagued by problems that stem from years of corporate greed and inaction.

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For thousands of Montana residents, asbestos mining and exporting was a way of life. All types of companies, from excavators to railroads, had a hand in asbestos. As a result, scores of residents have been impacted by the associated environmental and occupational risks. Countless studies have shown that clear and identifiable dangers exist in some parts of Montana as a result of asbestos exposure. Anyone living in the state is susceptible to the negative impact of asbestos.

Many of the companies responsible for asbestos mining and distribution have been publicly exposed and held liable for their actions, yet many Montana residents continue to be injured by asbestos. Because of the latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, patients may not become aware of cancer until decades after exposure. At that point, treatment options may be limited. Although Montana has a variety of treatment centers, public-health organizations and environmental-watch groups to keep residents informed, much more work needs to be done in the state to ensure public safety.

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Mesothelioma and Asbestosis Deaths, 1999-2013

  • 168 mesothelioma deaths
  • 105 asbestosis deaths
  • 273 total deaths

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Occupations and Environmental Areas at Risk

Asbestos occurs naturally in some rock and mineral formations and was widely used in commercial and industrial applications because it is heat and fire resistant. But it also poses a significant health risk to those exposed to its fibers. Many of the workers who mined and processed asbestos materials throughout Montana have developed related diseases like asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The area of the state most significantly impacted by asbestos exposure is Libby.

There are a variety of occupations in Montana that are at increased risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos also was shipped across the country and used in construction products of all kinds, increasing the chances of nationwide contamination. Even today, residents who work in industries that have any connection with the Libby mine are at risk.

Here are some additional jobs within Montana that have been known to be at risk of asbestos exposure:

  • Secondhand exposure from a loved one who worked with asbestos
  • Asbestos in schools
  • Environmental asbestos (breathing the air or playing in contaminated soil)
  • Asbestos in toys such as chalk, crayons and modeling clay

Jobsites with Known Asbestos Exposure:

  • Libby Mine
  • W.R. Grace & Company
  • Karst Mine
  • Stimson Lumber Co.

Libby

W.R. grace asbestos exposure

At the center of the state’s asbestos problems is Libby, a city with a population of less than 3,000. From 1923 to 1990, Libby was home to an active vermiculite mine. In excavating vermiculite from layers of igneous rock, miners also unwittingly uncovered tremolite, the most hazardous form of asbestos. During the height of vermiculite excavation, an estimated 5,000 pounds of asbestos or more was spewed into the air on any given day. As a result, more than 400 people who lived in Libby or nearby cities have died from asbestos-related diseases, and another 1,500 have developed related illnesses. An epidemiology analysis showed that 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 clean up. The EPA also declared Libby a public-health emergency – the first of its kind in the nation. It wasn’t until just recently, in 2014, that the EPA determine the cleanup efforts successful and declared the city safe for occupation.

Troy, Montana

Located just 15 miles northwest of Libby, Troy, a city of less than 1,000, has also been subjected to the negative effects of the Libby mine. Cases of asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma are many times higher in the Libby/Troy area compared to other areas statewide.

During an EPA study, researchers found Troy residents were contaminated by asbestos in a number of unusual ways, including contaminated drinking water, dust and soil. Beginning in 2009, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA worked to eliminate asbestos dangers. While there is still plenty of cleanup work to be completed, there seems to be less of a risk of asbestos exposure in Troy than in previous years.

Even with that, residents are still being warned to be aware of the asbestos risks because the full extent of theW.R. Grace & Co damage to Troy is unclear. Caution should be taken by all residents as the wide-scale clean continues.

Montana’s Public Parks and Land

montana asbestos wood hauling

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. The report said the EPA knew about the wood-chip contamination for at least three years.

Some 15,000 tons of wood chips and tree bark were sold and distributed outside of Libby in a 10-year period. It’s unclear exactly where the contaminated wood was placed, so residents are still warned to be aware of public area with landscaping. Today the widespread cleanup efforts are continuing, although local officials and residents said they are not confident in the EPA’s efforts.

W.R. Grace & Co.

W.R. Grace & Co. operated the Libby vermiculite mine from 1963 to 1990. Much of the mined material was tainted with asbestos.

W.R. grace asbestos exposure

W.R. Grace used vermiculite to develop a variety of products, including Monokote Fireproofing, Zono-Coustic, Zonolite Cement, Zonolite Plaster and Zonolite insulation. These products were shipped around the country, ending up in homes and buildings where they still exist today. Some of the materials have been found to contain dangerous amounts of asbestos. Estimates show that as many as 35 million homes may contain W.R. Grace’s Zonolite insulation, which contains asbestos-tainted vermiculite.

The company has been associated with more than 400 deaths within the Libby area. In addition, more than 1,500 people in Libby, about half the city’s population, have fallen ill from diseases that include asbestosis as a result of exposure to the toxic material. Workers were never offered breathing protection and never told of the possible dangers, despite the potentially deadly health implications discovered as early as 1899.

The problems in Libby began emerging in 1955 when Zonolite Co., which owned the mine early on, sent an internal memo discussing “the dangers of exposing our employees to asbestos.” Within four years, Zonolite ordered chest X-rays on 130 employees that showed one-third had early signs of asbestosis. When W.R. Grace took over the mine in 1963, company executives noted potential problems and possible “significant financial liability” for allowing employees to work in hazardous condition. Just years later, W.R. Grace saw the potential liability in the asbestos-related deaths and injuries and began formulating plans to protect assets.

By 1980, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) stepped in to address the increasing number of dying and diseased W.R. Grace employees. Company executives at the time debated whether to “obstruct and block” the OSHA study or “attempt to apply influence.”

Lawsuits began once scientific evidence clarified the link between asbestos exposure from vermiculite and diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. At one point, W.R. Grace faced more than 112,000 asbestos lawsuits. In an effort to shield itself from creditors, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2001 and went on to establish a court-ordered $3 billion trust fund for settlements. In 2008, the company agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit from its attic insulation product and pay up to $140 million. In 2009, the company was fined $54 million to cover cleanup costs related to the mine.

W.R. Grace remained under bankruptcy protection for more than12 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, the company focuses on developing chemicals and materials used in various industries, including construction and manufacturing. Grace is still required to fulfill the financial obligations established through the trust.

In addition to the financial problems from asbestos, W.R. Grace and several current and former executives faced a 2005 precedent-setting U.S. Department of Justice criminal probe for knowingly endangering Libby residents and concealing information about the dangerous health effects of asbestos.

A federal jury later acquitted the company and executives. Grace executives never denied asbestos emanated from its plant nor questioned the resulting illnesses, but denied any kind of conspiracy to cover up the problems.

Montana’s Superfund Sites Containing Asbestos

A Superfund site is a location deemed dangerous by the government due to environmental contaminates. In Montana, there are two Superfund asbestos sites: Libby Asbestos and Libby Ground Water Contamination.

The Libby Asbestos Superfund site consists of the city of Libby and the locations where widespread asbestos exposure occurred. Located just 35 miles east of Idaho and about 65 miles south of Canada, this relatively small city is an EPA Superfund location because of asbestos-contained vermiculite. Approximately 400 deaths and 1,500 illnesses are attributed to exposure to this toxic material. The EPA has dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars to cleaning this site up, which includes public and private properties.

The Libby Ground Water Contamination site was created because of groundwater contamination stemming from the Libby mine. This area is another hazardous site where asbestos abatement, cleanup and resources are necessary.

Grace has been slapped with several penalties and fines resulting from the Superfund designation. This includes a nearly $3 million settlement in 2001 with the EPA and the DOJ to fund local healthcare programs and a $63 million payment to the U.S. government in 2014 to resolve environmental cleanup claims at 39 related Superfund sites nationwide.

  1. Environmental Protection Agency – Montana Site Locator. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/region8/superfund/mt/index.html
  2. CNN – Asbestos cleanup 'emergency' declared in Montana town. (2009). Retrieved from: http://articles.cnn.com/2009-06-17/us/montana.asbestos_1_les-skramstad-libby-area-baucus?_s=PM:US
  3. Libby, Montana – ATSDR. (2009) Retrieved from: http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/asbestos/sites/libby_montana/
  4. NYDailyNews.com – More heartbreak for asbestos superfund town Libby, Mont; Wood Chips, tree bark contaminated. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/heartbreak-asbestos-superfund-town-libby-mont-wood-chips-tree-bark-contaminated-article-1.158626
  5. Environmental Protection Agency – Libby Asbestos. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/region8/superfund/libby/
  6. Environmental Protection Agency– Libby Site Background. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.epa.gov/region8/superfund/libby/background.html
  7. Environmental Working Group – Places That Handled Asbestos Shipments. (2009). Retrieved from: http://www.ewg.org/
  8. TravelMT – Troy Montana. (np). Retrieved from: http://www.travelmt.com/mt-cities-Troy.html
  9. City of Troy –Welcome. (2011). Retrieved from: http://www.cityoftroymontana.com/index.html
  10. Brown, M. For asbestos-ravaged town, questions persist. The Seattle Times. (2010). Retrieved from: http://seattletimes.com/html/health/2011941558_apusasbestostown.html?syndication=rss
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. (2015, January). Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2013 on CDC WONDER Online Database. Retrieved from: http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html

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