Welcome to Libby, Montana, population 2,691 —  a town forever changed by asbestos.
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EWG Action Fund

Welcome to Libby, Montana, population 2,691.

In many ways, Libby is like any other small town. It sits nestled between bits of national forest, it has a train station and a few schools (go Loggers!), and for many years its economy was supported by the nearby logging and mining operations.

But in other ways, Libby is very different.


Downtown Libby, Montana. Image: U.S. EPA.

Libby has a heartbreaking story to tell.

For decades, the company W.R. Grace operated a vermiculite mine in Libby. Vermiculite is a mineral used for insulation and fireproofing in many building materials. (By the way, it's also the material used for those little white balls in potting soil.)

The vermiculite mine in Libby provided ... over 70% of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. between 1919 and 1990.

The vermiculite mine in Libby provided hundreds of jobs, as well as over 70% of all vermiculite sold in the U.S. between 1919 and 1990. And while vermiculite itself isn't known to be harmful, the Libby mine also included a large deposit of something much more dangerous: asbestos.

The asbestos in Libby's mine has caused 400 deaths — and counting.

Mining the vermiculite that lay alongside asbestos released harmful asbestos fibers into the air. The asbestos appeared as a fine dust that coated the entire mine — it got everywhere — and caused harm not only to the mine workers, but to their friends, family, and other town residents as well.

But it's never easy to criticize a company that plays such a huge role in a town's life. In the 2004 documentary "Libby, Montana" by High Plains Films, one resident explained:

"[W.R.] Grace was on the school board, Grace was on the hospital board, Grace owned the bank. And when you talked about dust control here and ... what [the dust] was doing harmful to these people here, the first thing to come out of their mouth was 'You gonna close that mine down, and you gonna put all these people out of work?' Well you didn't have very many friends here when you started talking like that."

Mine manager Earl Lovick held town positions outside the mine. Images: "Libby, Montana."

Fast-forward to today: An estimated 400 people in Libby have died from asbestos-related diseases, and more than 2,000 have been sickened by the asbestos. Hundreds more deaths are expected from these diseases, as they can take decades to manifest.

Records show that W.R. Grace knew about the adverse health effects from asbestos in the mine many years before the mine's closure in 1990. Mine manager Earl Lovick, who died of asbestosis in 1999, testified to having knowledge of the presence and dangers of asbestos. (Check out 9:46 and 12:24 in the video below for clips of Lovick's statements.)

The company has since paid out millions of dollars in settlement money for civil cases concerning the effects of the asbestos. In 2008, W.R. Grace faced thousands of personal injury claims and agreed to settle all present and future claims via a trust. The amount of money they're doling out is nearly incomprehensible. But does it really make up for the deaths and the sickness?

Libby continues to heal ... slowly but surely.

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded to widespread concerns surrounding the asbestos in Libby. The agency collected hundreds of samples from around Libby. In 2002, the site was declared a Superfund site, and cleanup began.

A 2014 draft of the EPA's human health risk assessment states, "It is now possible to live and work in Libby without excessive exposure to asbestos. ... Remaining asbestos needs to be safely managed."

The asbestos risk may be under control (or close to it), but that doesn't mean the people of Libby have forgotten how W.R. Grace changed the course of their town's history.

Here's an excerpt from High Plains Films' documentary "Libby, Montana," which tells the story of asbestos exposure in Libby:

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Often, parents of children with special needs struggle to find Halloween costumes that will accommodate medical equipment or provide a proper fit. And figuring out how to make one? Yikes.

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Microsoft Office

This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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