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Libby, Montana is home to one of America’s worst man-made environmental disasters. Asbestos dust from vermiculite mines has killed hundreds of residents and caused asbestos-related illnesses in thousands more. Mesothelioma and other victims continue to surface with over $68 million already provided in settlements and lawsuits growing.

01. When Contamination Occurred

When Did Asbestos Contamination in Libby Occur?

Asbestos contamination occurred in the Libby, Montana vermiculite mine from the 1920s to 1990.

Vermiculite mining began in Libby, Montana in the 1920s when the Zonolite Company formed. Zonolite continued mining until acquisition by W.R. Grace in 1963. W.R. Grace maintained the operations until the Libby mine closed in 1990.

Vermiculite is a mineral that occurs naturally near asbestos. Natural mineral deposits (such as vermiculite and talc) can easily become contaminated with asbestos due to their proximity.

Although the contaminated mine was in use primarily throughout the 1900s, exposure is still a concern. Vermiculite was mined for use in building insulation, potting soil and fertilizer. While the mine isn’t in use today, products contaminated with asbestos from the Libby mine are still in use. For example, many older homes across the United States contain vermiculite insulation. Disturbing such products can cause illnesses such as mesothelioma cancer.

“While in operation, the Libby mine may have produced 80 percent of the world’s supply of vermiculite.”

02. Type of Asbestos in Libby

What Type of Asbestos Contaminated the Libby Mine?

Vermiculite in the Libby mines was contaminated with amphibole asbestos. Specifically, the contamination was tremolite-actinolite asbestos. This type of fiber is often called Libby Amphibole asbestos (LA).

Amphibole asbestos contaminated up to 26% of the Libby vermiculite ore.

Amphibole asbestos is highly friable. In other words, it easily crumbles, chips and breaks apart. This could lead to fibers becoming airborne, putting individuals at risk of exposure. Some studies suggest exposure to amphibole is more likely to cause mesothelioma than exposure to chrysotile asbestos.

Where Was Libby Amphibole Asbestos Found?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found LA in*:

  • Indoor ambient air
  • Outdoor ambient air
  • Indoor dust
  • Vermiculite insulation
  • Vermiculite bulk materials
  • Soil
  • Water
  • Animal tissue
  • Fish tissue
  • Various other media

*The EPA collected these findings during their investigation in Libby, Montana.

Local news outlets reported concerns about asbestos in Kootenai River and its tributary, Rainy Creek. The EPA found low levels of asbestos in the Kootenai River during testing. However, reporters noted asbestos in Rainy Creek was a larger concern. Asbestos readings for Rainy Creek were reportedly well above standard drinking water regulations.

These waterways were not sources for Libby’s drinking water. However, reports indicate other effects. Some of the earliest cases of asbestos diseases in the community were diagnosed among those who fished in these waters.

Who Was Responsible for the Libby Asbestos Contamination?

Asbestos contamination of the vermiculite mine was a natural occurrence. The proximity of the natural deposits of vermiculite and asbestos led to easy contamination.

However, reports indicate W.R. Grace was aware of the presence of asbestos and its health risks after it took over mining operations in 1963. The company measured dangerous levels of asbestos in the vermiculite in 1975. Despite this knowledge, the company allowed mining to continue. It also did not warn employees. The mine did not close until 1990.

When Did the Public Become Aware of W.R. Grace’s Involvement?

Knowledge of the Libby asbestos disaster spread through media outlets in the late 1990s. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published “Uncivil Action: A Town Left to Die,” a series about Libby. As knowledge spread about the mine’s dangers, so did knowledge of W.R. Grace’s involvement.

“The W.R. Grace Co., which owned the mine for three decades, was well aware of the deadly asbestos being inhaled by the miners and their families, but for years did not tell its workers of the hazards.”

–From “Uncivil Action: A Town Left to Die” by Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Because of the company’s negligence, hundreds of employees and other Libby residents faced wrongful exposure. Many employees and their families reported asbestos-related deaths and diagnoses.

As a result, W.R. Grace has faced thousands of asbestos claims and lawsuits. W.R. Grace has also established an asbestos trust fund to pay out current and future claims.

03. Exposure & Health Risks in Libby

Why Were the Vermiculite Mines a Problem for People in Libby?

The vermiculite mines produced large amounts of dust that contained asbestos. The dust affected not only those working in the mines but also those living and working in the vicinity.

Who Was Exposed to Libby Asbestos?

Anyone that came into contact with the contaminated vermiculite risked asbestos exposure. Even those not working directly with the vermiculite faced health risks. Asbestos dust spread from the mines to neighboring buildings, homes and schools.

Groups who risk asbestos illnesses from Libby asbestos include:

  • Miners working directly with the contaminated mineral
  • Community members living and working near the mine
  • School children in parks and sports fields near the mines
  • Consumers utilizing Libby vermiculite products

While Libby residents faced exposure from the mine, Libby asbestos caused widespread concerns. Asbestos from the mine was incorporated into a variety of products. Consumers across the United States risk exposure if they come into contact with the contaminated materials.

Health Impacts From Libby Asbestos Exposure

Many Libby workers and residents were diagnosed with asbestos diseases. Hundreds have died. Incidence and mortality rates continue to rise from the long-lasting impact of asbestos exposure from the mine.

Exposure to asbestos-contaminated vermiculite could lead to:

Most health effects stemming from the Libby asbestos sites have been respiratory diseases. This is from individuals breathing in asbestos dust and debris from the mine. If you were exposed to asbestos in Montana at a commercial, residential or military site and have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may be entitled to compensation.

The Impact of Asbestos-Related Diseases on Libby Men and Women

Elevated asbestos-related deaths have occurred for men and women in Libby. Men have accounted for a slightly larger number of asbestos-related diagnoses and deaths. Researchers note men were more likely to work as miners.

Mining is a high-risk asbestos occupation. Miners are at risk of exposure when mining asbestos or minerals in close proximity to asbestos. Although asbestos mining is banned today, mining of other minerals near asbestos deposits continues. By disturbing asbestos fibers, miners risk exposure and the development or related illnesses.

Many women were exposed from secondary exposure. Mine workers were likely to bring home asbestos fibers on their clothing.

Libby asbestos has affected entire families. Gayla Benefield, a lifelong resident of Libby, is a patient advocate and activist suffering from lung disease. Her husband and parents died from asbestos diseases. Four of her five children have also been diagnosed with asbestos diseases. Benefield shared her story in a documentary, Libby, Montana.

Continued Asbestos-Related Deaths in Libby, Montana

Researchers reported asbestos from the Libby mine led to around 400 deaths within the 1990s. Related deaths have continued through the 2000s and are still happening today.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) collected Libby mortality data from 1979 to 1998. It retrieved causes of death from death certificates.

During this time period, workers from the vermiculite mine in Libby accounted for:

  • 92% of asbestosis deaths
  • 67% of mesothelioma deaths
  • 17% of lung cancer deaths

Follow-up reports show incidence and mortality rates continue to rise. Researchers also feel the data is an underestimation of asbestos diseases related to Libby.

04. EPA Cleanup Efforts in Libby

Libby, Montana Asbestos-Cleanup Efforts

Concerns about asbestos exposure in Libby, Montana began to peak in the late 1990s. Citizens, local government and media brought concerns to the EPA. The EPA began to respond in 1999.

The agency set up a local information center to help handle asbestos concerns. The news of those affected by Libby’s asbestos contamination continued to spread as the EPA became involved.

By 2000, an asbestos Superfund investigation began. Through this investigation, the EPA sought to determine the source(s) of asbestos. It also established a plan for cleanup and decontamination. Libby was then placed on the EPA’s Superfund list in 2002. Libby was also placed on the National Priorities List (NPL). This prioritizes EPA cleanup projects based on risk.

What Is a Superfund Site?

A Superfund site is an area contaminated by hazardous substances. The Superfund program allows the EPA to identify and clean up polluted areas. This falls under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

Libby is one of the largest environmental disasters in United States history. In 2009, the EPA declared a Public Health Emergency in Libby – the first of its kind in the agency’s history. This was to provide asbestos victims with federal healthcare assistance. It also emphasized the serious health risks associated with exposure from the mine.

W.R. Grace had to contribute $250 million toward past and future cleanup efforts. The EPA spent more than $600 million on the project until its completion in 2018.

Where Did Asbestos Need to Be Removed in Libby?

The EPA investigated more than 8,100 properties within the Libby Superfund site. The asbestos cleanup covered more than 2,600 of these properties. The EPA completed cleanups at all:

  • Schools
  • Parks
  • Residential areas
  • Commercial areas
  • Former vermiculite-processing plants
  • Other contaminated public areas

The EPA removed more than one million cubic yards of contaminated soil. The soil was deposited in the closed vermiculite mine. The agency also removed more than one million cubic yards of asbestos-contaminated waste from source areas and structures. The waste was disposed of in a designated landfill cell. The old mine and forested areas in Libby remain contaminated.

05. Is Libby Safe Today?

Is Libby, Montana Safe Today?

The EPA asserts that Libby, Montana is now safe. The agency completed its investigation and cleanup of Libby, Montana in 2018.

According to the EPA, “The amount of LA in air in downtown Libby is now nearly 100,000 times lower than when the vermiculite mine and mill were operating.”

Over the past few years, the EPA has removed portions of Libby from the NPL. This demonstrates their progress toward diminishing associated health risks.

Is There Still Asbestos in Libby?

Even though the EPA completed its investigation and cleanup of Libby, there are still areas with asbestos concerns. The agency has not yet addressed asbestos cleanup of the vermiculite mine site and forested areas.

Libby is still known for the asbestos tragedy today. Residents of Libby continue to share their stories and the impact asbestos had on their families.

The EPA plans to establish a cleanup plan for the forests. It has acknowledged the risk of LA exposure to emergency personnel in the event of a wildfire. The agency has offered support to the U.S. Forest Service and local and state partners in Libby, Montana to assist with fire preparedness.

On July 1, 2020, the EPA transferred the majority of project oversight to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The EPA continues to oversee the actual mine site.

Why Are People Still Dying in Libby?

Asbestos continues to have a long-lasting impact on Libby. Residents continue to die and face asbestos-related diagnoses.

Some victims are only now receiving diagnoses from exposure years ago. For example, signs of mesothelioma may take years to emerge. Due to its long latency period, symptoms can take 10 – 50 years to present.

06. Lawsuits & Settlements

Libby Asbestos Lawsuits and Settlements

W.R. Grace continues to face asbestos claims after exposing victims to asbestos in Libby. Workers, their loved ones and community members have suffered from asbestos-related diseases and died as a result of the company’s negligence.

W.R. Grace has paid millions of dollars to settle asbestos claims. Notable asbestos litigation related to W.R. Grace includes:

  • 2011: A judge awarded a $43 million settlement to more than 1,300 claimants.
  • 2017: A judge awarded a $25 million settlement to more than 1,000 claimants.
  • 2018: Montana’s Supreme Court appointed six new judges to handle thousands of pending Libby claims.

By filing an asbestos lawsuit, victims may be able to receive financial compensation. This can help with treatment costs, lost income and other related hardships.

To handle the immense number of asbestos claims, W.R. Grace established a trust fund. The asbestos trust fund helps ensure current and future claimants receive financial help. To determine trust fund eligibility, individuals should seek counsel from an asbestos attorney.

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