- By Treven Pyles
Libby, Montana has a long history of vermiculite mining which dates back to the early 1920s, when the Zonolite Company began extracting the minerals from the town's mountains. Shortly after W.R. Grace and Company bought the business, the mine became the largest vermiculite supplier in the world, producing approximately 80% of the global amount. However, the company's unprecedented success was soon to be overshadowed by a grim fact the executives had been striving to conceal from both their workers and the consumers: the vermiculite mined in Libby was contaminated with tremolite asbestos.
Although several employees of the former Zonolite Company had been diagnosed with pulmonary diseases as a result of asbestos exposure, the executives of W.R. Grace and Company claimed they were "unaware of the hazards of mining and milling vermiculite" upon purchasing the business. Throughout the following decades, over 400 residents lost their lives to malignant diseases, while 3,000 others were severely affected by exposure to high levels of asbestos, as vermiculite was present in numerous public locations in town, including playgrounds and baseball fields.
Vermiculite mining finally ceased in 1999, when the issue gained national attention following a series of articles published by The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Libby was subsequently declared a Superfund site in 2002 and the Environmental Protection Agency began what is now known as the longest-running asbestos cleanup project in the U.S. history. A Public Health Emergency was soon announced in Libby. So far, asbestos abatement operations were conducted at 2,275 locations and over 7,300 properties were thoroughly investigated. W.R. Grace and Company was also required to provide $250 million for future cleanup projects in 2008.
In January 2017, a $24 million settlement was reached between Libby residents whose health was tremendously affected by exposure to asbestos-tainted vermiculite and the State of Montana. Former employees of W.R. Grace and Company had not been formally informed regarding the hazards vermiculite mining entails. The state denied liability, claiming that it had no legal obligation in this respect. Nevertheless, 1,026 asbestos victims were awarded a total of $24 million as financial compensation for their injuries.
Both former W.R. Grace and Company workers and some of their family members received compensation, as secondary exposure to asbestos had also been a common occurrence in the community. The settlement issued from 100 asbestos lawsuits filed by Libby residents and will be paid in two installments - the first, representing 60% of the entire sum, has already been awarded, while the last is to be received by asbestos victims by July 31, 2017. Additionally, two new asbestos trust funds were established by Kalispell law firm, whose 826 claimants will be offered $18 million, and by Great Falls law firm, whose 261 clients will be awarded $6 million.
W.R. Grace and Company has been under bankruptcy protection since April 2, 2001. Although this is the most recent settlement reached between Libby residents and the State of Montana, it is not the first. In 2011, over 1,300 asbestos victims received $43 million as compensation, a major settlement which was approved by a district court judge.
The asbestos abatement projects which have been conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 1999 are finally coming to an end. Nearly $600 million has been invested in cleanup operations aimed at removing asbestos-tainted vermiculite from all across Libby and the surrounding areas, which had also been heavily contaminated as a consequence of over 70 years of mining. Approximately 700 more cleanup projects are to be completed until the agency's endeavors come to a close.
Libby property owners who have not yet partaken in a safety investigation are urged to sign up by March 31, 2017. "This last call really signals the end of the project, which has been a bit of a dark cloud hanging over our area for some time. It will always be a part of our history, our legacy, but this helps break through the cloud. It's a positive", says Nick Raines, manager of the Lincoln County Asbestos Resources Program. Residents who refuse to participate in EPA's cleanup project, which is free of charge, will have to pay for the services of a certified asbestos abatement company if they would like to have their houses inspected in the future.
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