A lot has happened in Libby, Montana this past week. First, the EPA pronounced they were nearly done with the clean-up of the massive Superfund Site there and, now, the state has settled with about 1,000 of Libby asbestos victims, offering $25 million in compensation for claims that state health officials failed to warn local miners about the hazards of a tainted mine operated by a greedy company that seemed to be unconcerned about the health of its employees.
The site of one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in the world, Libby was once a bucolic town, close to the Canadian border, where people went to fish and hunt.
But those who lived and worked there were long the victims of an asbestos-tainted vermiculite mine operated by W.R. Grace and Company, best known for their manufacture of Zonolite™ insulation.
The mine closed nearly 30 years ago, but people kept getting sick with asbestos diseases and the EPA stepped in in 1997 to assess the problems. What they found was staggering, even to those agents who had “seen everything”.
Through the years, more than 400 Libby-area workers and residents have died from asbestos diseases and the latest numbers show that well in excess of 3,000 individuals are currently sick with a variety of asbestos-related ailments, including aggressive mesothelioma cancer.
The settlement with the state addresses more than 100 lawsuits, most with multiple plaintiffs. The state has claimed, from the start, that they had no duty to warn the miners of hazards from the W. R. Grace and Company mine in which they worked.
However, in 2004 – more than a dozen years ago – the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the state should have warned the miners about the dangers, which were apparent as far back as the 1950s.
As a result of the agreement just announced, the state will be released from any future liabilities in regards to the mine and the asbestos contamination.
W. R. Grace and Company managed to escape most of their liabilities by declaring bankruptcy once they realized the extent of the damage they had caused and the number of fatalities resulting from their negligence.
As a result of their bankruptcy, the company was required to establish an asbestos trust fund, which pays victims and their families amounts that are far less than these innocent individuals could most likely have gained as a result of a successful lawsuit. But it’s the victims’ only option at this point.
In the meantime, the EPA is completing the longest and most-expensive environmental clean-up in U.S. history. It cost the agency some $600 million to clean up not only the mine but a total of about 8,000 additional properties in the Libby and Troy, Montana areas.