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Libby, Montana: Toxic Town

 
 

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

 
 

Libby, Montana is a small town in the northwest corner of Montana, US, near the Canadian border. Libby is an example of a toxic town, one that emerged over time from its relationship with the mining of vermiculite contaminated with asbestos. The story of Libby unfolds over a long period of time, and remediation efforts there are on-going.
The US EPA homepage for the Libby site can be found here: EPA Libby .

The story of Libby as a toxic town is one of residents discovering and trying to respond to the discovery of a widespread toxic problem in their town, asbestos, and the reaction of environmental agencies, particularly the US EPA to the situation (for extended discussion see Peacock, 2003, 2010; Schneider, and McCumber, 2004). Commercial mining of vermiculite first began in Libby around 1919. The mines in the area were purchased by W. R. Grace in 1963. Grace plays a major role in shaping responses to the discovery of widespread asbestos exposure and pollution in the town of Libby.

It appears that W. R. Grace knew for some time that the mining of vermiculite in the Libby area brought with it the danger of exposing workers to co-occurring deposits of asbestos (for extended discussion see Maryanne Voller’s 2000 article, “Libby’s Deadly Grace” in Mother Jones). At trail, Grace executives also admitted to knowing that mine workers could spread asbestos contamination to their families. As Voller notes, 1 in 40 Libby resident has died from or has a disease related to asbestos exposure.

Local residents were also exposed to the asbestos contaminated vermiculite in other ways. The mining process created asbestos contaminated dust that blew across the area. The mined vermiculite was shipped near the town on opened container rail cars and ships. In addition, the vermiculite was sorted into different sizes near the local high school, creating future opportunity for asbestos exposure. Grace stored unusable vermiculite in piles near the high school where local children played in the piles. Grace also allowed local residents access to these piles and to cart off the low grade vermiculite for use in and around their homes as insulation in attics as to amend garden and lawn soil. All of these additional points of asbestos contact increased the likelihood that residents would be exposed to the disease producing potential of asbestos.

The story of the problem in Libby was brought to national attention by a series of articles written in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper published in 1999 (Schneider and McCumber, 2004). This aided residents in convincing the US EPA t investigate the problems the town was facing. Following EPA investigations of the site, Libby was placed on the Superfund list in 2002, and eventually the clean-up process began – but not without sustained efforts on behalf of Libby residents to force the EPA to act (Schneider and McCumber, 2004).

The clean-up/remediation process in Libby is extensive and rather extraordinary in terms of the kinds of remediation effort required to ensure the safety of Libby residents. Videos of the clean up effort can be found on Youtube. The extraordinary effort required that all homes and businesses be cleaned of asbestos dust – an estimated 1,600 homes and businesses. Soils in yards, schools and other public locations needed to be removed and replaced.

The problems posed by the Libby vermiculite also turns out to be a national issue since the product was shipped to locations across the US ( product map). For Libby residents, the removal process continues, as does the effort to receive compensation from W. R. Grace.

More than 200,000 lawsuits were filed in the case. Due to the number of cases and the settlements, W. R. Grace entered into bankruptcy protection in 2001. This lead to a criminal investigation by the US Department of Justice into recent transfers of funds Grace has made before declaring bankruptcy. In 2005, the US Department of Justice also filed a criminal case against W. R. Grace for knowingly endangering the residents of Libby. The Department of Justice has specifically identified 1,200 victims who have died or have contracted asbestos related diseases. The trial began in 2009 after year of delay, including hearings on pretrial motions by the US Supreme Court. Grace was acquitted of the charges later in 2009. The Department of Justice has, however, recently been successful in other suits against Grace and has settled (February, 2014) other suits ( Grace Bankruptcy).

W.R. Grace is also involved in the toxic town incident in Woburn, Massachusetts, which was the subject of the movie A Civil Action starring John Travolta.

 
 
Further Reading

In this dictionary see:”Toxic Towns” entry



References

Peacock, Andrea. 2010. Wasting Libby: The true story of how the WR Grace Corporation Left a Montana Town to die (and got away with it). Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Peacock, Andrea. 2003. Libby Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of an American Corporation. Boulder, Co: Johnson Books.

Schneider, Andrew and David McCumber. 2004. An Air that kills: How the asbestos poisoning of Libby, Montana Uncovered a National Scandal. NY: Putnam and Sons.

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