Asbestos Cleanup Continues in Libby

More than a decade after it first began, the asbestos cleanup continues in Libby, Montana.

So far, nearly 1,900 homes there have been decontaminated by government workers who must wear protective equipment in order to safely wipe down furniture, excavate lawns, and vacuum out crawl spaces and attics, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription required). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) leads the effort to rid the town of deadly asbestos fibers, the legacy of its years as the home of a vermiculite mining and milling operation owned by W.R. Grace & Co.

Libby once produced about 80 percent of the world’s supply of vermiculite, which is used in building insulation and as a soil conditioner. However, the vermiculite ore from the Libby mine also contained asbestos. Asbestos exposure can cause devastating diseases such as mesothelioma, a fatal cancer in which tumors grow in the linings of the lungs, abdomen, and heart.

W.R. Grace always claimed that it was unaware of the mine’s asbestos hazards and that it followed the safety standards of the time. Both the mine and the mill were closed in 1990. But by that time, the town and its residents had already experienced substantial asbestos exposure from the mining and milling operations. Medical officials estimate that at least 2,000 Libby residents have developed asbestos-related diseases and that about 400 people have died from them, according to the Journal.

Libby is now identified as one of the largest environmental and public health disasters in the nation by the federal government.

Ridding a town of asbestos is not easy. However, the EPA estimates that the amount of asbestos fibers in the town’s air is nearly 10,000 times lower than it was during the period when the mine and the mill were in operation.

The Libby cleanup has cost at least $400 million, according to the Journal, including a $250 million civil settlement paid by W.R. Grace in 2008. And the work isn’t over yet.