The small town of Libby, Montana, is one of the most contaminated asbestos sites in the world, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The town is set in a picturesque part of Montana and was the site of a vermiculite mine for almost 70 years. Vermiculite is a mineral that expands greatly when heated. There are many uses for vermiculite, including building insulation and soil conditioning.
At one point, Libby produced 80 percent of the world’s supply of vermiculite. Unfortunately, Libby’s mountains also contained high amounts of tremolite-actinolite asbestiform mineral fibers, which is essentially a highly toxic, naturally occurring form of asbestos. The mining operations left the town coated in asbestos fibers that have been linked to approximately 400 deaths and 1,700 illnesses in the community of 3,000.
Asbestos is still found throughout the town despite the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine being closed since 1990. Health issues among Libby residents were first noticed in mine workers and their spouses who laundered their dusty clothes. Some of the town’s children who were allowed to play near the vermiculite processing plants have also developed asbestos-related illnesses.
The area’s residents are primarily at risk for developing the lung disease asbestosis or mesothelioma, an often deadly form of cancer. Mesothelioma can have a very long latency period so it is possible that the health of Libby residents will be threatened for decades to come.
The EPA recently proposed a tough new standard for its asbestos cleanup measures in the town. The new standard is reportedly 5,000 times stricter than past standards for federal superfund cleanups related to airborne asbestos.
W.R. Grace & Co., the former operator of the mine, has rigorously opposed the new EPA standard to the chagrin of many health experts. It entered into a $250 million settlement with the EPA regarding cleanup efforts in the town, but still has to clean up the mine site.
Grace alleges that the EPA proposal for cleaning the Libby area is based on flawed science and is unduly harsh. Grace also alleges that many residents’ symptoms are linked to other health conditions such as obesity.
“I don’t even see why Grace gets a say in this matter. They’re the ones that caused this disaster,” said one public health professor who testified against Grace during the asbestos litigation. “The situation in Libby specifically shows that minimal pleural disease carries with it significant physiological changes in the lungs.”
Working with the city of Libby and Montana state agencies, the EPA has already done extensive testing around Libby and poured $447 million into the cleanup effort since 1999.
“As of 2009, the former vermiculite processing plants and other highly contaminated public areas have been cleaned up,” the EPA said in a statement. “Based on current information, EPA estimates that 1,200-1,400 residential and business properties will need some type of cleanup.”