A Town in Danger: Libby, Montana

Today, the small city of Libby, Montana has a community of 2,800 residents that doesn’t have many luxuries aside from a bowling alley and a model plane runway. Such communities are barely more than a blip on most people’s radar. Libby, however, is a small town with a big problem.

In 1919, a local rancher purchased local vermiculite mines and started the Zonolite, a mining company. Through his marketing efforts, Libby’s population began to use the mineral extensively in everything from housing insulation to garden soil.

By 1963, the W.R. Grace Company purchased the mines. While they were in operation, they played a key role in Libby’s economy, employing many citizens and supplying up to 80 percent of the world’s vermiculite.

Unbeknownst to the workers, the mine was also contaminated with asbestos. By 1999, the ramifications of this were realized as dozens of people died from asbestos-related illnesses. The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found higher-than-expected lung abnormalities among residents in the town, even in those who did not work at the mine and were thought to have not been exposed to the vermiculite.

In June of 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency took the rare step of issuing a public health emergency situation in Libby. Since then, the EPA has aggressively worked to remedy the situation, removing the asbestos-tainted vermiculite from soil, water, and buildings in the town. In all, over 200 people in Libby died from asbestos-related diseases, with hundreds more falling sick. Millions of dollars have since gone into the clean-up effort, although it is far from complete.

In the words of EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, this “should be a serious reminder of the consequences of mismanaging hazardous material.” Several individual instances of asbestos-related tragedies are reported in the news, but in this case an entire town has fallen victim to asbestos, and a full recovery will take decades.

If you are concerned that your neighborhood may be contaminated by asbestos, please contact Sokolove Law to learn about your legal rights and options.