Nestled in the northwest corner of scenic Montana, the town of Libby was once a haven for vacationers who enjoyed the plethora of outdoor recreation available there, including fishing, hiking, boating, and skiing. But in 1919, when an asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine opened in the tiny town, things slowly began to change.
Today, Libby is the site of the worst environmental disaster in the United States. Newspaper articles have referred to the town as “The American Dream Gone Bad”, a place where nearly 300 have already died due to asbestos-related diseases and more than 1,000 have been sickened by asbestosis, pleural plaques, or deadly mesothelioma. Not surprisingly, Libby has the largest number of cases of this asbestos-caused cancer of any town in the U.S.
Since 1963, the contaminated vermiculite mine – which contained tremolite asbestos - was owned by W.R. Grace and Co., a global specialty chemicals and materials company that used the vermiculite from the mine in their Zonolite-brand insulation. Records later released during investigations of the company revealed that Grace executives long knew that the mine was contaminated and causing health problems yet did nothing to protect their employees and the citizens of Libby, who regularly wiped asbestos dust from their cars and anything else within close proximity of the mine.
Most of the town was proud of their mine and generations of family members worked there. The town did everything they could to support it. That meant using filler and asbestos tailings in their roads, flower beds, and even on the playgrounds at local schools. Today, not only have miners died, but so have their family members, and even those who had no official connection to the mine but were merely victims of contamination via the continuous asbestos dust that permeated the air in Libby.
Since May 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has spent more than $120 million in Superfund money to clean up the town. Nearly a decade later, most major source areas have been cleared but EPA officials estimate it will be a few more years until all clean up is complete. In June 2008, along with the Dept. of Health and Human Services, the EPA launched an investigation into the effects of asbestos-tainted vermiculite on the people of Libby. The results will be released in a few years.
In February 2009, a long-awaited trial began concerning W.R. Grace’s role in an alleged conspiracy to hide its knowledge of the dangers of the Libby Zonolite mine. The trial, which implicates the company and five of its executives, continues. If convicted, the company could face criminal fines of up to $280 million and the executives may receive prison sentences. A sixth executive is being tried separately.
Last modified: December 28, 2010.