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Libby, Montana – The Town Asbestos Decimated

By Shaniqua Williams

Posted on September 01st, 2017

When inquired, company executives would insist that the visible dust which was invariably polluting the air in manufacturing facilities and around the mining site was just "nuisance dust".

Negligence and apathy were without a doubt inherent to companies which would employ asbestos despite being well-aware of the hazardous effects exposure could have on human health. From asbestos products manufacturing plants to oil refineries and textile mills, approximately 200 such companies were operating throughout the United States during the past century. Their incessant use of asbestos endangered the lives of over 11 million people between 1940 and 1978, as employees would be breathing in toxic fibers day by day in the workplace. Regrettably, a significant portion of them subsequently developed life-threatening diseases such as lung cancer or mesothelioma and similar diagnoses are still emerging among former asbestos workers nowadays.

While the activity of each asbestos company had a terrible impact on both employees' and residents' health, the aftermath of W.R. Grace's vermiculite mining operations which took place in Libby, Montana was by far the most shattering. Vermiculite, a mineral with excellent insulating properties, occurs in close proximity to asbestos deposits in the earth, which makes contamination inevitable. As a consequence of the five decades of massive vermiculite exploitation W.R. Grace was responsible for, approximately 400 residents lost their lives, whereas over 1,700 are currently suffering from debilitating illnesses.

A Brief History of Vermiculite Mining in Libby

Even though it was only in 1963 that W.R. Grace began mining vermiculite in Libby, a quarry had been known to exist since 1881, when it was found by gold miners. Vermiculite exploitation ensued approximately 40 years later. At the time, the primary company conducting mining operations in town was Zonolite Company - a manufacturer of insulation from Peru which had been in business since 1854. W.R. Grace purchased the vermiculite mines, as well as a processing mill, from Zonolite Company in 1963. Soon after, Libby became the leading producer of vermiculite worldwide, with 80% of the global supply originating from the town's mountains.

With over 200 employees, many of whom Libby residents, W.R. Grace would produce up to 200,000 metric tons of vermiculite per year until 1990, when the Zonolite Mountain mine was closed due to the unprecedented health hazard it generated. In addition to attic insulation, Davison Chemicals and Performance Chemicals - the company's divisions - also manufactured a series of other asbestos-containing products, including:

  • fireproofing compounds
  • refining catalysts
  • sealants
  • silicon dioxide
  • cement
  • gardening products
  • dry plaster compounds
  • roofing and deck materials

Vermiculite was processed in "dry mills" until well into the 1970s, which would generate so much toxic dust in the air that workers could not see their own hands on the brooms. Although miners were inhaling plenty of asbestos as well, people responsible for processing vermiculite were at highest risk, since the concentration of airborne fibers in these facilities was by far the greatest. Over 5,000 pounds of asbestos would be released in the air every day, according to W.R. Grace estimates. The mine site was permanently covered with deadly white dust and when the wind blew from the east, it would carry a good part of it to residential areas.

To make matters worse, Libby would regularly receive leftover vermiculite from W.R. Grace, which it would incorporate in the soil of public locations such as baseball fields, playgrounds, gardens, roads, and parks. Additionally, asbestos-containing slag was residing in the running tracks and junior baseball pitches of four schools, whereas townsfolk also recount how children would thoughtlessly play in the piles of vermiculite scattered around. The infamous Zonolite attic insulation is estimated to lurk in over 35 million public and residential buildings in the U.S.

Downplaying the Dangers of Asbestos Exposure

The vermiculite W.R. Grace was mining in Libby contained very high concentrations of tremolite asbestos, which workers would be inhaling on a regular basis. When inquired, company executives would insist that the visible dust which was invariably polluting the air in manufacturing facilities and around the mining site was just "nuisance dust", although they were well-aware of both the existence of asbestos and the harmful effects of exposure. Upon purchasing the mine from Zonolite Company, W.R. Grace was informed by executive P.L. Veltman with regard to asbestos being present in vermiculite. However, instead of choosing the ethical approach, W.R. Grace had gone to great lengths to keep the issue of asbestos exposure a secret until the very closing of the mine, in 1990, when the company was forced to own up to its outrageous indifference.

One of the people who testified to having prior knowledge in this respect following the shutting down of the Libby vermiculite mine was manager Earl Lovick, who died of asbestosis in 1999. He had been aware of the correlation between asbestos exposure and lung disease, as well as of the fact that W.R. Grace employees were breathing in this carcinogenic mineral since 1948. There is also footage of Lovick admitting that the company had been in on this issue since 1956.

Another piece of evidence pertaining to executives' prior knowledge of the asbestos threat is the internal company memo from 1955 discussing "the dangers of exposing our employees to asbestos". Moreover, in 1959, Zonolite Company ordered chest X-rays for 130 of their employees. Over a third of the examined workers were found to have lung abnormalities such as tissue scarring, which were actually early signs of asbestosis. The test results were never disclosed to the affected individuals. Starting with 1964, a yearly X-ray program was enforced to monitor the health of employees.

Between 1956 and 1964, there were also five asbestos hazard reports concerning the vermiculite mine issued by Benjamin Wake, the health inspector of Montana. A concentration of 40% tremolite asbestos was revealed to linger in the air of dry mills. Despite this disquieting finding, Zonolite Company did not take initiative to abate the menace, as in 1962, "no progress has been made in reducing dust concentrations in the dry mill to an acceptable level and that, indeed, the dust concentrations had increased substantially", according to Wake. Even worse, one year later, the inspector found the level of airborne asbestos to be six times higher than the permissible limit, which was 5 million particles of asbestos per cubic foot of air at the time.

Libby's Asbestos Issue Gains National Attention

Considering the severity of the hazard, it did not take long for W.R. Grace employees to start developing severe pulmonary disease as a result of years of occupational asbestos exposure. Although the company would provide workers with respirators to wear on the job, the protective equipment was highly ineffective, as it would clog up immediately. By 1969, approximately 65% of the vermiculite miners at W.R. Grace with a 20-year or longer work history were suffering from a type of lung disease.

It was only a decade after W.R. Grace took over the vermiculite mining operations in Libby that a series of safety practices were enforced. A slightly less hazardous method of processing vermiculite, entailing the use of water to reduce the amount of asbestos dust released in the air, replaced the dry mill. However, the company was not very eager to introduce additional reforms. In 1983, executives concluded that spending $373,000 on showers, uniforms, and paid overtime so that miners could wash off the asbestos dust before returning home to their families would be too inconvenient for them.

As concern regarding asbestos exposure was increasing, W.R. Grace was also striving to come up with clever strategies to avoid enforcing proper safety regulations. In 1980, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health's intention to conduct a study of disease in vermiculite workers prompted company executives to focus their entire attention on finding a way to "obstruct and block" the research, "attempt to apply influence", as well as to "be slow, review things extensively and contribute to delay". Surprisingly, the study was indeed delayed for years.

While W.R. Grace went out of business in 1990, it was only nine years later that the horrific aftermath vermiculite mining was responsible for gained national attention. Following the series of articles titled "Uncivil Action: A Town Left to Die" published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which raised awareness of the struggle former workers affected by asbestos exposure were going through, EPA embarked on what was going to be the widest, longest-running asbestos cleanup project in U.S. history.

In 2002, due to the tremendous extent of environmental pollution, Libby - as well as the neighboring town Troy - was declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and began undergoing cleanup shortly after. So alarming was the issue that in 2009, the agency deemed it a matter of Public Health Emergency so as to provide federal health care assistance to the victims of asbestos exposure. Although the health hazard has been considerably diminished by virtue of EPA's relentless endeavors, dire repercussions are still arising from the town's history of vermiculite mining, as residents continue to be diagnosed with asbestosis, lung cancer, and pleural mesothelioma.

As of November 2018, EPA Completed Cleanup in Libby

Shortly after the EPA was notified with respect to the unprecedented environmental disaster nearly 70 years of vermiculite mining left behind, the agency began conducting cleanup projects throughout Libby and the surrounding areas which had been polluted. At the moment, the concentration of asbestos in the air is nearly 100,000 times lower than it was when the vermiculite mine was operating. As of November 2018, the EPA completed cleaning up more than 2,600 properties within Libby as well as Troy and about 7,600 properties had been investigated within the Superfund site. EPA also completed cleanup projects at the former vermiculite processing plants, as well as at all schools and parks in town. Over one million cubic yards of asbestos-containing waste was successfully removed hitherto by virtue of the federal agency's ongoing endeavors.

More than $600 million were invested in Libby's massive asbestos cleanup and in 2008, W.R. Grace was ordered to contribute with $250 million to EPA's asbestos abatement efforts.

Former W.R. Grace Employees Injured by Asbestos Exposure Are Eligible for Financial Compensation

Similarly to many other companies which could no longer keep up with compensating employees injured by workplace asbestos exposure, the vermiculite manufacturer set up the W.R. Grace Asbestos Settlement Trust after filing for bankruptcy protection in 2008. The company's asbestos trust fund has $1.8 million to pay out to former workers who are now suffering from asbestos-related diseases. With the assistance of a lawyer specialized in asbestos exposure cases, former W.R. Grace employees diagnosed with lung cancer, asbestosis or mesothelioma can easily recover the compensation they deserve.

These awful diseases have been accountable for the death of approximately 400 Libby residents so far, while over 1,700 others are currently struggling with the health consequences of occupational or environmental asbestos exposure. Approximately 10% of the town's population perished following the disaster and new cases will likely continue to emerge for several more years, since asbestos-related illnesses have a long latency period.

The tragic fate of Libby residents is by no means a closed chapter. It should constantly serve as a grim reminder of what can happen when convenience and financial interest outweigh safety concerns and the wellbeing of others.