Asbestos, Grace and Libby: How One Town Was Forever Changed

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If there is one location in the world where asbestos has had a more disastrous impact than any other, that location would be Libby, Montana. This picturesque town of approximately 3,000 residents, which is located between the Cabinet Mountains and the Purcell Mountains, has this unfortunate distinction because it is home to a now-defunct vermiculite mine, which is owned by W.R. Grace and Co., and which was once a major employer of Libby residents.

Vermiculite is an ore which was first discovered in the Libby area in 1881, and which has been mined there since 1919, although it did not surpass logging as an industry until the mine was bought by W.R. Grace and Company, in 1963. Vermiculite has remarkable insulating properties and can be used for loose-fill insulation, fireproofing materials, and soil condition, as well as in many other capacities.

While in operation, the Grace mine produced approximately 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite. It was widely used in a brand of attic insulation known as Zonolite, and the United States government estimates that more than 35 million homes may still contain Zonolite or another asbestos vermiculite insulation.

Not all vermiculite is contaminated with asbestos, but the deposit in Libby was, tragically, contaminated with three forms of asbestos, including tremolite, one of the most toxic forms. The tremolite would have remained safe under a layer of topsoil, had it not been for the vermiculite mining, which disturbed it and helped release its deadly fibers into the air. As a result, asbestos particulate was released into the air around Libby for years – between the 1920s, when the mine became operational, and 1990, when Grace closed its mine. This exposure has led to thousands of cases of asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, pleural plaques, asbestos-related lung cancer, and a rare but particularly destructive cancer known as mesothelioma.

You might think that it is the miners who are suffering the most, but that’s not the case. The entire town of Libby was poisoned, and so roughly half of the victims of these conditions had no connection to the mine whatsoever, whether direct or indirect. A quarter of the people who are ill are former miners, and another quarter are family members of those miners, who may have suffered their exposure to asbestos when the miners carried the fibers home on their clothing. Yet the average citizen of Libby would have been exposed to asbestos by playing on the Little League field near the mine; by running on the track which was composed of vermiculite slag; by taking advantage of the free vermiculite material offered by Grace for use in home gardens; or simply by living their daily life and breathing in the air.

After a 1999 story in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which questioned the remarkable number of mesothelioma and asbestosis cases being diagnosed in the Libby area, the national and international spotlights began to shine on this small town. In response to political pressure, the Environmental Protection Agency began to investigate the mine site, and then to clean it up. The EPA would go on to call this the worst case of community-wide exposure to a toxic substance in United States history, and to spend over $120 million to remove the contamination.

There is a great deal of evidence which suggests that the executives at W.R. Grace and Co. knew about the health hazards of asbestos and vermiculite mining, yet chose to cover up that information in order to protect its business interests. Prosecutors for the government, which brought criminal charges against Grace and several of its former executives, presented at trial millions of pages of documents, including internal memos, notes, study results, medical histories and other materials, as well as x-rays that were taken of miners and that showed their diseased lungs.

The federal case against W.R. Grace went to trial in the spring of 2009, with the company and three of its former executives accused of knowingly allowing the Libby area residents to be exposed to asbestos; of ignoring state agencies’ orders to clean up the mining operation; of violating sections of the Clean Air Act; and of obstruction of government efforts to address the problems in Libby.

Yet all the parties on trial were acquitted in May 2009. On June 17, 2009, for the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency declared a public health emergency in and around the town of Libby, which will allow for federal agencies to fund health care and removal of the contaminated materials from any home that may still have them in place.

There are a number of civil claims against W.R. Grace still outstanding, and because of asbestos-related diseases’ long latency periods—it may take anywhere from 10 to 50 years for mesothelioma or the other conditions to appear—there are likely to be many more suits brought against the corporate giant. These suits are not restricted to Montana residents, either; many are being brought by workers from plants around the United States where Libby vermiculite was taken to be processed.

Out of approximately 2,600 residents of Libby, at least 200 people have died from diseases traceable back to asbestos exposure. New cases of mesothelioma and asbestosis are being diagnosed at a rate of more than one per week. Many others have been diagnosed with one of these diseases and are currently suffering from pain, difficulty breathing, and the emotional distress caused by having been sickened by their town or their employer. Some experts believe that, if you factor in all of the children who played on the ball fields of Libby that were built with vermiculite slag or breathed in asbestos from the vermiculite used as mulch in their family gardens, the upswing of cases will not begin to reverse until 2030 or even after. The legacy of W.R. Grace has left a lasting impression on the small town of Libby, Montana.