Libby, Montana has long been considered the most notorious, asbestos-plagued town in the U.S. For decades, a W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine blanketed the town with toxic dust, exposing a huge number of residents to asbestos and unknowingly putting innocent families at great risk for developing asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis. While the mine closed in 1990, its deadly legacy remains. Libby has since been named one of the largest and deadliest Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the government cleanup of the town has lasted more than a decade and cost more than $370 million.
However, good news is finally emerging from Libby’s sad, asbestos-laced story. Recently, officials announced the once-deadly ambient air in this rural town is now safe.
While results from the latest toxicity report were encouraging, health officials conceded that some homes previously addressed by the cleanup crews remain a risk and might need to be revisited. They suspect those areas have been re-contaminated by homeowners who have unintentionally brought in asbestos from contaminated sites. To prevent re-contamination of these homes, the EPA is planning to begin cleaning alleys between houses and entire neighborhoods instead of individual building. They also plan to pursue a “curb to curb” approach that will no longer make exceptions for homeowners who want parts of their yards left intact.
Another 150 homes are slated for cleanup this summer, leaving 200 more properties in the federal cleanup plan. Officials say they have been denied access to an additional 600 sites that could be contaminated.
In a separate study, research performed by the EPA suggests the cancer risk from Libby’s asbestos is similar to the danger posed by other types of asbestos. Scientists have previously claimed Libby’s unique strain of the mineral was hundreds of times more toxic than asbestos found elsewhere.
In all, the future of Libby, Montana finally looks hopeful. Perhaps future generations will breathe fresh air again in this rural, mountain town. Although, no matter how many years pass, the 400-plus who were killed by this deadly mineral will never be forgotten. Families have pursued mesothelioma settlements, empowered activists are fighting to ban asbestos on a national level, and everyone has learned from their strength. But at the end of the day, all of this will be in vain if the larger public doesn’t take note of the asbestos tragedy in Libby and take meaningful steps to eliminate this material and its related diseases once and for all.