Saturday August 9, 2014, 5 miles (8 km) – Total so far: 3,752 miles (6,039 km)
Trappers and traders from British fur companies explored the Libby, Montana area in the early 1800s. Miners began working the area in the 1880s. But it was vermiculite, discovered six miles northeast of town in 1881, that would provide many people in town their livelihoods, and ultimately, take their lives away. Vermiculite is a useful product – it is used in home insulation, fertilizers, construction materials, absorbents and feed additives, among other things. Unfortunately, the vermiculite ore here also naturally contains tremolite asbestos which is incredibly toxic to humans.
Up to 80 percent of the vermiculate ore from Libby was made up of unmarketable material, so the ore was crushed to separate the product. The milling process released high amounts of airborne particulates and asbestos. The asbestos dust covered the town for decades. Additionally, the mine gave away the waste product to the townspeople for free. Consequently, vermiculite contaminated with asbestos was spread everywhere. It was used in gardens and as roofing material. It was used as backfill all over town. It was in the baseball fields, the playgrounds and the running tracks. It was slowly poisoning the townspeople.
Concerns about lung disease in miners surfaced as early as the 1950s. The WR Grace Company, which bought the mine in 1963 is purported to have known about the health problems but denied it. Concerns were raised with the State Board of Health in the 1960s and with the EPA in the 1970s. The mine was told to install filters and follow up health problems but were never held to this. So nothing was done. At the height of the mining, vermiculite from Libby comprised 80 percent of global supply. Between 1963 and the mine’s closure in 1990, it is estimated that nearly 10 billion pounds of vermiculite was shipped from Libby. The milling process is estimated to have released into the atmosphere more than 5,000 pounds of dust containing asbestos each day.
A series of investigative newspaper articles about the dead and dying mine workers and their ill family members was published in a Seattle newspaper in 1999. This forced the EPA to act. When they came to town and took soil samples and did health surveys, the results were shocking. Breathing in asbestos fibers can cause pleural thickening, asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. In their analysis of health records for the period 1979 -1998, the EPA found that asbestosis mortality was 40 times higher than the rest of Montana and 60 times higher than the United States as a whole. Lung abnormalities were not restricted to the miners and their families. Individuals with no connections to the mine were also found to have lung problems – around 18 percent of the general population. Asbestos was found all over town, in almost every place the EPA took samples.
The EPA set up shop in town and announced that the clean-up would take 2.5 years and cost a few million dollars. Fourteen years later and more than $200 million into it, the initial risk assessment is still incomplete. The scale of the pollution is unprecedented. The EPA has had to create methodologies, standards and toxicity values as they go. A Remedial Investigation Report was just released in June 2014. This will be used for a future feasibility study and proposed remedial actions. To this point, the EPA has treated more than 1800 properties. They remove asbestos from 100-200 properties per year. Because the standards keep changing, and more vermiculite continues to be found, some properties considered complete may need more work. They’ve done removal and remediation work at the public schools at least three times.
In 2008, the EPA went after the WR Grace Company and got the largest civil cash settlement in EPA history – $250 million. The company and three former executives were cleared of criminal wrong-doing, however. Several times the EPA has tried to disengage quietly and transfer responsibilities to homeowners, but the townspeople have dug in. The end is not in sight. There is the resignation that they will never fully clean up the town and there will always be a risk of exposure. The asbestos pollution is just too extensive.
Of course, the population continues to suffer. In a town whose population has hovered around 2,800 residents for the past 40 years, it is estimated that asbestos-related lung disease has already killed more than 400 residents. Nearly 2000 more people have been diagnosed with lung disease. Entire families across several generations are sick and dying. Because of the latency period in these diseases, about 15-20 new cases are diagnosed each month. This is expected to continue into the next decade.
It is not something that you hear people talking about in general conversation in town. The town really tries to keep it on the ‘down-low’, so that tourists will still visit the town. Mining and logging dollars are few these days, so tourism would help lift a town where nearly ¼ of the population lives below the poverty line. But the town is a pretty sad place with boarded-up businesses and a feel of ‘has been’ and ‘going, going, gone’. Other than the new-ish supermarket, there seems to be not much investment in anything after about 1980. I ride around town a bit, and the feeling I get here is exactly like what I feel when I ride through Indian Reservations. It is a sadness that acknowledges that the damage is done and cannot be repaired. The powerless have little voice and little energy to demand what should be theirs. Some places and people are just broken, and Libby, Montana feels as splintered as the fibers of the tremolite.