The Future of Libby, Montana
Located in northwestern Montana, the town of Libby has become victim to its own industry. The large W.R. Grace vermiculite mine had been the pride of the community for decades. However, the asbestos extracted from this location has not only caused the death of a huge number of workers and residents, but forced the U.S. Government to declare Libby one of the most toxic areas in the country. Ironically, the same mines that provided the town with the jobs that were Libby’s lifeblood were also its undoing. Today it is the site of perhaps the largest Superfund cleanup programs in history.
History of Libby Mining
W. R. Grace purchased the open pit mine in 1963 and a decade later, production was at its height as approximately 2 million tons of vermiculite ore were extracted annually. The company shipped the mined ore worldwide to be made into insulation. Despite the presence of asbestos near these mines, that material was not the target ore, although it was once used to make tiles, ceiling and wall panels, coatings for wires, insulation pads for electrical circuit breakers, and wraps for steam pipes. Asbestos is a natural mineral that is a form of magnesium silicate, with the amphibole type of this compound discovered in huge quantities near Libby many decades ago. After the vermiculite ore was crushed at the W. R. Grace mining operation, most of the asbestos tonnage was simply left in piles around the site.
Asbestos fibers become airborne if loosened, and the winds carried fibers from these discarded piles into every corner of Libby. Houses, shops, barns, playgrounds, and even vegetable gardens were eventually covered with tiny asbestos fibers. Furthermore, asbestos was also introduced to the town from affixing to miner clothing and entering homes. Over the years, residents of the town, not to mention the miners themselves, underwent significant, long-term exposure to this asbestos. The fibers lodged in their lungs, causing respiratory problems which would eventually lead to diseases such as mesothelioma and lung cancer, as well as illnesses such as asbestosis.
There have now been over 400 deaths in Libby that are directly linked to asbestos exposure. In the past two decades, about half of the town’s residents have moved away, though many of citizens have already been diagnosed with health conditions related to asbestos inhalation. Mesothelioma is the most dangerous of these conditions, as there is no known cure for this type of cancer. Mesothelioma exhibits especially long latency periods, and is usually not diagnosed until its later stages.
The Superfund program in Libby has been progressing since 2000, and most of the ground level sites where asbestos has been collecting were identified within two years. A massive removal of fibers from buildings, open fields, athletic venues and other areas is now underway and is expected to continue for several more years. Even trees around the mine have embedded asbestos fibers in their bark. Nonetheless, the town of Libby may face extinction if more residents decide to leave the area. The company responsible for the huge deposits of asbestos fibers, W.R. Grace, went bankrupt in 2001. It is not known how many people have been affected overall, because of the long latency period of asbestos. Furthermore, it remains undermined as to how the Environmental Protection Agency will continue to label Libby.