For the residents of Libby, Montana, the word asbestos conjures up fear, resentment, anger, and worry. Now that the W. R. Grace trial has ended, those who live in this small, close-knit mountain town just want to move on.
Libby was once home to a W. R. Grace vermiculite mine. Founded in 1854 by an Irish immigrant named William Russell Grace, the company had interest in several industries, including shipping and manufacturing, but in Libby, the focus was the lucrative business of vermiculite mining. At least every family in Libby knew someone who worked in the mines, whether it was a father, brother, cousin, or neighbor. But what residents did not know was that the vermiculite mined in this small town was tainted with asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that may cause mesothelioma cancer, among other diseases.
W. R. Grace officials, upon discovering that their vermiculite was contaminated, went to great lengths to hide this information from not only Libby residents, but the entire world. They even denied Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials access to property that they owned in an effort to prevent the agency from testing soil and air around the mine. Grace officials also issued false statements to the EPA, which stated that their vermiculite contained less than one percent asbestos (it did not – the levels of contamination were far higher).
According to official reports from the Department of Health and Environmental Sciences in Helena, Montana, the Grace-run mine in Libby supplied 80% of the vermiculite used worldwide, thus making the issue of asbestos-tainted vermiculite at the Libby mine a global health issue. But in Libby, the focus remains on local health issues, including concerns over a lack of funding for those suffering from an asbestos-related illness like pleural mesothelioma or asbestosis.
The majority of residents who have developed an asbestos disease were exposed while on the job, but statistics show that about fourteen percent of residents with a related disease were exposed in a secondhand fashion – some while laundering work clothes belonging to a spouse or father who worked in the mines, others through day-to-day contact – hugging, etc. – with someone who brought home asbestos fibers on their work clothes. This percentage is shockingly high, and because there is a long latency period associated with asbestos illnesses – anywhere from twenty to fifty years – it is hard to determine just how many people will be affected.
After what many consider to be the most controversial environmental trial in history, Libby residents are left to wonder what the future holds. W. R. Grace and three former executives were found not guilty on eight separate counts, including knowingly endangering those who live and work in Libby. Many residents who are long retired from Grace are struggling to cover medical costs, pay their bills, and support their families.
Those who were exposed to asbestos and have yet to develop asbestosis, lung cancer, or mesothelioma can only wait.
Despite negligence on the part of W. R. Grace, there is also some good news. The company, for the tenth year in a row, has donated $250,000 to the St. Johns Lutheran Hospital in Libby. The money has been allocated to a clinic for those suffering from asbestos disease. A grant has also been awarded to another Libby medical center where many residents receive treatment for asbestos illnesses, and Montana Senator John Tester has committed himself to helping Libby residents receive better health care.
The mortality rate in Libby, according to Health Department statistics, is 63 percent higher than normal, due to the high incidence of asbestos disease. This begs the question: what are Libby residents to do about the ongoing asbestos problems?
Those who have developed an asbestos disease will most likely die within two years of diagnosis. Those who have yet to be diagnosed, but were exposed to asbestos from the Grace-run mine are eligible to receive health screenings, either yearly or every five years. Residents who are unsure about exposure should speak with their physician, who can recommend a course of action – for most, this involves screenings and regular checkups, as well as close monitoring of respiratory health.
Now that the trial is over, and the press has left Libby, residents want to move on. They are hoping that their small town will once again become a place that attracts new residents and commerce, and they are eager to leave the legacy of W. R. Grace behind. Libby boasts beautiful scenery – mountain views, clear lakes, salmon-filled rivers, and extensive camping grounds. There is an annual Irish Fest, a Nordicfest, Libby Logger Days, and rodeos, and plenty of community events. A place that anyone can call home, according to residents.
For more information about the town of Libby, Montana, please visit www.libbymt.com.