Libby is a town known for its tragic story in connection with asbestos. In Libby, Montana, there are vermiculite mines that companies began operating in 1919. Vermiculite is a naturally occurring mineral that often contains asbestos. The miners and townspeople in Libby were completely unaware of the asbestos dangers surrounding the mining of vermiculite. Yet, after many decades of mining the mineral and using it in various construction materials within the town, exposed workers and townspeople started to become sick and suffered from asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma. The tragedy of Libby is that not only were mine workers affected, but local residents also were victimized. Even today, Libby is experiencing the aftermath of toxic asbestos from the mines in their town and homes. The danger is still a cause for alarming concern.
Beginning in the early 1960s, officials from W.R. Grace & Company, which operated the mines, knew that vermiculite contained asbestos and that it was highly likely that exposure would result in serious health complications and disease. Despite that information, workers and residents of Libby were never notified of the danger or protected from suffering illnesses related to asbestos exposure. Hundreds of townspeople have died from the exposure, and the number of local residents suffering from asbestos-related illnesses number in the thousands. The public was completely unaware of the devastation in Libby until 1999, when the EPA stepped in to help clean up the town.
The History Behind the Libby, Montana Catastrophe
Over 80 years ago, mining began in Libby at the same time the company Zonolite was formed. It wasn’t until 1963 that W.R. Grace and Company took over the mines and resumed business as usual. However, it soon became apparent that many employees were experiencing lung problems before several related deaths were reported. At the same time, the company’s management claimed they did not know about the connection between the health issues of the miners and mining vermiculite, which was completely untruthful. Executives absolutely knew of the dangers of asbestos exposure and the serious damage that it could cause to the lungs of workers, yet they chose to remain silent and never informed employees of the hazards.
Sadly, not only workers were affected in Libby. Many townspeople are still dealing with the aftermath of vermiculite in their town. Leftover vermiculite from the mines was given to Libby residents for free to use in playground construction, roads, backyards, and buildings. That means asbestos was not only in the air surrounding the mines, but also circulating around popular locations all over the town where adults and children most frequently spent their time.
The Federal Government Responds to the Asbestos Tragedy
In 1999, a national news story exposed the whole country to the tragedy in Libby, Montana. Following the national attention, the EPA established an information center to help address all concerns and problems related to Libby and asbestos exposure.
The plan of action to treat and remove the vermiculite from Libby was at first extremely slow because the EPA encountered such an enormous cleanup project. The EPA first had to determine the sources of asbestos contamination and then carefully remove the vermiculite from businesses, homes, and the mine site. Libby was officially registered on the Superfund list in 2002, and W.R. Grace & Company was ordered to pay $250 million to cover future costs in 2008. The EPA has stated that it believes the contamination in Libby will remain even after the cleanup job is complete.