Asbestos Deaths Continue in Libby, Montana

Asbestos Deaths Continue in Libby, Montana in the nearly three decades since the asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana – owned by W.R. Grace and Company – shuttered its doors, but the legacy of the contamination it spread throughout the little town near the Canadian border continues as, each year, more residents pass away from asbestos-related illnesses.

Asbestos Deaths Continue in Libby Montana

Recently, the Great Falls Tribune wrote an extensive article profiling the long-lasting effects the mine has had on a place that was once an outdoor paradise…a place that is striving to become that once again now that the clean-up is essentially over.

“The houses and yards and businesses are cleaned up. The so-called stigma of Superfund designation is fast fading. The Cabinet Mountains and the crystalline waters of the Kootenai River beckon visitors and even new residents,” wrote reporter David McCumber.

And if not for the slow-motion horror of the plague on this place, Libby, self-titled City of Eagles, would be soaring.

“Instead, this beautiful town, doused every day for more than six decades with tons of asbestos-laden dust from a nearby vermiculite mine, still suffers the unthinkable — a steady stream of the sick and the dying.”

The reason people are still dying has to do with the very nature of asbestos-related diseases, particularly mesothelioma cancer.

When individuals are exposed to asbestos and inhale toxic fibers on a regular basis, those fibers become lodged in the body, usually in the area around the lungs – the pleura. However, those who are exposed don’t get sick immediately.

It takes decades for the disease to show itself, which is why diagnoses are still popping up today, even though the mine closed in 1990.

And it’s not just the miners and their families who are getting sick. Scores of Libby-ites who had no direct connection to the mine are victims, too. That’s because the town – prompted by W.R. Grace – used asbestos tailings for all sorts of purposes, including as filler for school yards and playgrounds, parks and other public places.

It was nearly impossible to avoid exposure.

No one knows exactly how many Libby area residents have died of asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma. That’s because when miners first became sick several decades ago, the hospital they went to for treatment was run by W.R. Grace.

Health officials point out that the company never put the word “asbestos” on the miners’ death certificates, even though it was clear why they were dying.

Nevertheless, the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease (CARD) clinic in Libby reports that more than 2,400 people have been diagnosed with asbestos diseases after being screened there at one time or another since it opened in 2003.

CARD, which is a non-profit operated by an all-volunteer, community-based board of directors, currently treats 4,500 individuals who suffer from what they call Libby Amphibole Disease.

By all accounts, however, the EPA did a bang-up job with the clean-up. It was a monumental task, McCumber points out.

“Some 8,100 properties were checked for asbestos. Of those, 2,600 required cleanup. Some cleanups involved excavating gardens and yards. Some involved cleaning asbestos insulation from attics and walls,” he writes. “By late September, only a handful of properties remained to be examined, and just a couple of cleanups were still in process.”

Now the town worries that the Trump administration will undo all of their hard work. Under his control, the EPA has issued a

“Significant New Use Restriction,” which could allow new industrial uses of the mineral if approved by the agency. The EPA claims this is a move that will provide a measure of control. Libby-ites see it as a loosening of controls because, under other administrations, it was not possible for additional uses to be approved.

They just don’t want the same thing to happen all over again.